Amazon Takes a Step into the Future: Testing Bipedal Robots in Fulfillment Centers


In a week filled with groundbreaking announcements at Amazon’s Delivering the Future event in Seattle, one piece of news has captured the imagination of technology enthusiasts and industry experts alike: Amazon’s plans to test Agility’s bipedal robot, Digit, in its nationwide fulfillment centers. While these are still early days and the outcomes remain uncertain, the implications of this move are vast and thought-provoking.

Amazon’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of automation and robotics is well-known. The e-commerce giant has continuously invested in the development of advanced technologies to enhance its logistics and warehousing operations. Agility, a startup that specializes in robotic systems, caught Amazon’s attention and was among the first recipients of the $1 billion Industrial Innovation Fund established by Amazon in April of the previous year. According to Tye Brady, Amazon Robotics Chief Technologist, the Innovation Fund is about exploring possibilities and understanding practical real-world examples. While Amazon Robotics predominantly utilized wheeled locomotion for its autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), the potential of bipedal robots piqued their interest. Bipedal robots offer unique advantages, such as the ability to navigate various terrains and adapt to different tasks.

Amazon’s foray into the world of robotics dates back to its acquisition of Kiva Systems in 2012. The integration of Kiva’s platforms led to the deployment of over 750,000 AMRs in Amazon’s vast warehouse network. This strategic move revolutionized the industry, creating intense competition and driving other companies to automate their operations to meet the growing demands for fast and efficient order fulfillment. To be integrated into Amazon’s robotics ecosystem, any new system must demonstrate a clear increase in productivity, aligning with Amazon’s unwavering focus on improving the speed and efficiency of goods delivery. This holds true for bipedal robots as well. One significant challenge is adapting these robots to match Amazon’s monumental scale.

Several startups are racing to be the leaders in humanoid robotics, including 1X, Figure, and Tesla. Among them, Agility’s Digit is unique. While it might be the least human-looking, it has secured substantial funding and a significant head start. Agility has even opened a factory in Salem, Oregon, with the capacity to produce up to 100,000 Digits annually once fully operational. The fascinating aspect of humanoid robots is that they can adapt to workspaces designed for humans, including shelving heights, terrain, aisle width, and staircases, which can be challenging for traditional wheeled AMRs. This adaptability makes humanoid robots a promising solution for a variety of industries, especially in brownfield sites where automation wasn’t initially considered.

Tye Brady confirmed that Digit isn’t the end-all, be-all of Amazon’s plans for mobile manipulation. By combining sensing, computing, and actuation, Amazon envisions a wide range of possibilities for advanced robotic systems. This could involve mounting robot arms on wheeled robots, and creating a mobile manipulation platform capable of handling various tasks. While the success or failure of Agility’s Digit in Amazon’s fulfillment centers remains uncertain, the impact of this pilot program could reverberate throughout the robotics industry. If Amazon successfully deploys bipedal robots at scale, it may inspire other companies to explore this innovative form of automation.

Amazon’s ongoing pursuit of automation and robotics innovation continues to shape the future of the industry. The decision to test Agility’s Digit in its fulfillment centers is a clear indicator of Amazon’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Whether Digit becomes a fixture in Amazon’s workforce or not, the experiment will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the way we think about bipedal robots and their role in the world of logistics and automation. As these trials unfold, we can expect new breakthroughs and exciting possibilities for the future of robotics.

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