Carpet Roamers Come of Age

June 2012
By Bryan Bergeron

Amazon’s commitment to acquire Kiva Systems for $775M this past March traveled like a shockwave through the robotics industry. Finally — a commercial application of a mobile robotic platform made the big time. I’m not talking about the occasional mail delivery robot found in a large office building or a pair of drug delivery robots working in the pharmacy wing of a hospital, but swarms of robots in huge warehouses tasked with time-critical transport of everything from books to bowling balls. If the robots prove successful at supporting Amazon’s massive volume of orders, then robots from Kiva Systems (or a competing company) are destined for a warehouse near you.

To see these robots in action, take a look at the videos on the Kiva Systems website at The bright orange robots (which resemble the external fuel tanks for outboard motor boats) each support modular warehouse-style racks. Although I haven’t seen the official technical specifications, the robots and racks seem capable of supporting at least 100 pounds, as long as the weight is distributed evenly on the shelves of the six foot tall racks.

The videos are worth viewing, if only to illustrate an alternative way for a mobile robot delivery platform to operate. For example, instead of simply picking an item from a shelf and bringing it to a human packer, the Kiva robots bring entire shelves to the packer, in the order in which their contents are needed. Humans stand at predefined spots, unload the shelves, and the robot then moves the shelves to strategic locations in the warehouse. In other words, the warehouse is dynamically reconfigured to suit the current inventory, the needs of the human packers, and the particular orders placed by customers.

According to Kiva marketing statements, moving the shelves of products to stationary human packers instead of having humans hunt through rows of shelves is two to three times faster. The question, of course, is whether that will result in pink slips for two out of three warehouse workers or faster delivery of Amazon products. I suspect the answer is some combination of the two, at least initially. Long-term, I give the edge to the robots and the associated servers and software. Robots don’t demand medical care, and don’t pass out in the middle of the summer when warehouse temperatures are above 100 degrees.

While I have sympathy for the warehouse workers that might be displaced, I hope the Kiva-Amazon solution is successful. It would portend a bright future for robotics technicians, engineers, and enthusiasts. Consider that every sizeable warehouse will need a technician or two to maintain and repair the fleet of robots and associated computer equipment. Furthermore, companies like Kiva need engineers to continue innovating.

Of course, like other enthusiasts, I’m eagerly awaiting the time when these commercial systems are readily available as affordable commercial platforms on eBay. I’m not sure what I would do with one or two of the beasts — maybe moving furniture around so that my robotic vacuum cleaner can do a better job.

Perhaps you have a better idea? If so, please consider sharing it with our readers. SV

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