Amazon edges closer to robots unloading trucks

Posted May 4, 2019 by Tim Sandle
Amazon is preparing to eliminate the human element of unloading trucks by pushing ahead with trials involving robots. The technology is based around Siemens and Honeywell robotic devices.
The IFL PiRo robot detects the objects desired and automatically puts them into shopping baskets.
The IFL PiRo robot detects the objects desired and automatically puts them into shopping baskets.
© Laila Tkotz, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
One challenge with automation relates to how trucks are loaded and unloaded. Where robotics has made strides in other areas of automation, such as picking items from a warehouse, when it comes to moving goods to and from trucks, challenges have remained.
Amazon's technological advances appear set to challenge the services of companies like FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., perhaps signaling a new edge to the automation war, according to a report from Bloomberg.
The work on robots to unload trucks is progressing, although this requires many trucks to be modified and most loading machines require space within logistics hubs or warehouses, which is difficult to create given the large amounts of equipment already occupying these areas.
Of the two pioneering robotic technologies being explored, Honeywell’s approach is a large contraption on wheels equipped with a bank of suction cups to grab packages stacked high. The Siemens option is a type of rolling belt installed on the truck trailer’s floor and where packages loaded on top. The time to load and unload is said to be considerably faster and more accurate than any human is capable of.
For Amazon, automation is the future and a sign of how this has advanced was noticeable over the last holiday season. Throughout December 2018, Amazon used its fewest number of seasonal employees (20,000 workers down from 2017 in the U.S.) However, the e-commerce giant managed to shift more parcels than ever before. The reason for this was automation.
The automation pioneered in Amazon warehouses included robots, autonomous delivery vehicles, cashier-less grocery store chains and delivery drones. Many of these autonomous assistants were designed by Kiva Systems, a company Amazon acquired in 2012 (with Amazon's prediction that a complex retail system needed automation coming to fruition). Further innovation comes via the subsidiary Amazon Robotics.
Despite these advances, Amazon has recently dismissed the idea of operating a fully automated warehouse in the near future, stating that no machine can yet challenge the superior cognitive ability of humans, plus there remains too many limitations of current technology.
However, Amazon has indicated that it has such a goal in mind; the company sees the warehouse where there are no humans working within as around ten years into the future.
Scott Anderson, director of Amazon Robotics Fulfillment states: "There is a fallacy in the initial understanding of ‘Are we going to be a lights-out fulfilment network in the next few years?’ In the current form, the technology is very limited. The technology is very far from the fully automated workstation that we would need."