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article imageAmazon's Picking Challenge challenges the limits of AI robotics

By James Walker     Jul 5, 2016 in Technology
Amazon has crowned the winner of its second Robot Picking Challenge, a competition that sees intelligent robots pitched against each other in a bid to be the fastest to pick products from shelves. The winner can pick over 100 items per hour.
As The BBC reports, this year's competition has been viewed as a much greater success than 2015's inaugural event. Amazon hosts the contest to help it realize new technologies that could be put to use in its vast warehouses, decreasing the time required to pick products and improving efficiency.
The winning robot was created by TU Delft from the Netherlands. Across the two-part event, the robot consistently outperformed its rivals. The competition starts with a stowing challenge in which the robots place items on the shelves. They then have to pick products in the second part. The robots operate autonomously throughout the contest.
Amazon used some of its most popular items to test the robots. These included soft clothing, boxed DVDs, bottles of water and a toothbrush. Points were awarded for successful picks and stows. Penalties were applied for damaging any item, dropping any item from a height of more than 30cm or leaving an item protruding more than 0.5cm from a shelf.
Team Delft managed to pick over 100 items in an hour, three times as many as last year's winner. Despite the achievement, the team ended up in a tie with Japanese group PFN. Both robots scored 105 points so the judges conducted a "photo finish," analyzing the time taken for the robots to pick their first item. Team Delft won by over half a minute, taking home $50,000.
The university team attributed its success to the adaptability of its AI. Its robot used 3D scans of the items to work out how best to grip them with its suction cup, determining what to do next with greater flexibility than its competitors.
"We built a very robust system, that hardly makes any mistakes in picking the products, thanks to our expertise in 'bin picking,'" said Kanter van Deurzen from Delft Robotics. "The robot needs to be able to handle variety and operate in an unstructured environment," added Carlos Hernández Corbato from TU Delft Robotics Institute. "We are really happy that we have been able to develop this successful system."
The team behind the winning robot in Amazon s 2016 Robot Picking Challenge
The team behind the winning robot in Amazon's 2016 Robot Picking Challenge
Delft University of Technology
Sixteen finalists made it to this year's challenge. Amazon raised the stakes for 2016, making the competition more difficult. Despite the new regulations, the contenders performed markedly better than last year's robots, highlighting the fast moving pace of robotics technology.
The progress doesn't mean Amazon is ready to replace bots with humans though. Team Delft's solution is still nowhere near replicating a human's pick rate of around 400 items per hour. Humans are also quicker to recognize items and have very low failure rates, compared with Delft's 16.7 percent.
Amazon told TechRepublic that it sees robots as a way to "enhance" jobs for employees rather than replace them. It uses automation in 13 of its 123 fulfilment centres across the world.
According to Amazon, adding robots to warehouses actually increases the number of human jobs available. Automation in one area, such as picking, requires more humans to staff positions in the other zones, like sorting or packing, to keep up with the unrelenting pace of robotic work. "The data shows that the more robots we put into our [fulfilment centres], the more jobs we create," said Amazon.
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