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Amazon Unveils New Autonomous Robots as Leadership Loses Black Execs

Amazon has developed its first fully autonomous mobile robot as part of its fleet of new machines designed to expedite warehouse fulfillment.

The autonomous robot, Proteus, moves through Amazon’s facilities using proprietary safety, perception and navigation technology developed in house, e-commerce giant wrote in a blog post.

Amazon designed Proteus to navigate around workers—meaning it doesn’t need to be restricted just to certain areas in a warehouse. It complements the movement of Amazon’s “GoCarts,” the non-automated, wheeled transports used to move packages around its fulfillment centers.

Proteus will initially be deployed in the outbound GoCart handling areas in Amazon’s fulfillment centers and sort centers. Amazon says its vision is to automate GoCart handling throughout the network, which will help reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects and instead let them focus on “more rewarding work.”

In a video, Proteus is shown transport the carts between locations. The moving robot emits a green beam, and stops if a human worker steps in front of the beam.

Executive chairman Jeff Bezos’ goal to make Amazon “Earth’s Safest Place to Work” might remain a lightning rod for criticism, but the company’s other new launches suggest that the company is heavily investing to robotics to inch closer toward that reality.

Amazon’s Cardinal robotic workcell uses artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision to pick packages out of a pile. The robotic arm can lift a package and read its label before placing it in a GoCart. Amazon says Cardinal reduces the risk of employee injuries by handling tasks that require lifting and turning large or heavy packages or complicated packing in a confined space.

With Cardinal, Amazon says package sorting can happen earlier in the shipping process, relying on automation to drive faster processing times and reduce manual work.

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The company is currently testing a Cardinal prototype to handling packages up to 50 pounds, and expects to deploy the technology next year.

And to reduce the need for employees to reach up, bend down or climb ladders when retrieving items, Amazon says it has been developing a containerized storage system that ergonomically delivers products to employees.

The system helps determine which pod has a container with the needed product, where that container is located in the pod, how to grab and pull the container to the employee, and how to pick it up once the employee has retrieved the product.

Amazon also shared how it’s leveraging AI tech to automatically scan packages. The Amazon Robotics Identification (AR ID) capability will be powered by computer vision and machine learning technology to enable easier package scanning.

In Amazon’s fulfillment centers, employees manually scan packages. When an item arrives at a workstation, an employee will pick the package from a bin, find the bar code and scan the item with a hand-scanner.

AR ID is designed to cut out the manual scanning process by using a camera system that runs at 120 frames per second, which Amazon says can give employees greater mobility and help reduce injury risk . Employees can handle the packages with both hands instead of one hand while holding a scanner in the other, or they can position the package to scan it by hand. This creates a natural movement, enabling the technology to do its job in the background.

A decade has passed since Amazon acquired mobile robotic fulfillment solutions provider Kiva Systems for $775 million.

“Speculation was rampant that Amazon was replacing people with robots. But 10 years on, the facts tell a different story,” Amazon said. “We have more than 520,000 robotic drive units, and have added over a million jobs, worldwide. We have more than a dozen other types of robotic systems in our facilities around the world, including sort centers and air hubs. From the early days of the Kiva acquisition, our vision was never tied to a binary decision of people or technology. Instead, it was about people and technology working safely and harmoniously together to deliver for our customers. That vision remains today.”

The rhetoric about employees working alongside robotics technology comes amid reports that Amazon may be concerned about its hiring pool drying up. A Recode report cited leaked Amazon internal research from mid-2021, which said, “If we continue business as usual, Amazon will deplete the available labor supply in the U.S. network by 2024.”

Amazon dismissed the report, saying it drafts many documents to account for different possible scenarios.

But despite what the future holds for Amazon’s ability to hire new employees, robotics will continue to play a major role in the company’s future. In April, Amazon announced another robotics-powered fulfillment center in Hamilton, Ontario that will create 1,500 new jobs.

Prior to that, Amazon opened a 350,000-square-foot robotics-powered manufacturing facility in Westborough, Mass., which created an estimated 200 new jobs. The company said the Westborough facility and another Massachusetts site in North Reading serve as the “epicenter” of its robotics innovation.

The company continues to fortify its slate of robotics fulfillment centers across the U.S. and Canada, recently building and opening additional locations in Vancouver; Acheson, Alberta; Tallahassee, Fla.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Shreveport, La.; and Richmond, Va. among others.

Amazon’s hires retail chief, two top Black execs leave

Amazon’s robotics developments come as another part of its business sees massive change. Longtime Amazon exec Doug Herrington is taking on the title of CEO of worldwide Amazon stores after Dave Clark departs the business on July 1 to take over as co-CEO of digital freight forwarder Flexport.

Herrington, a 17-year Amazon veteran, had a major hand in launching the AmazonFresh grocery delivery business in 2007 and has led the North American consumer business since 2015.

In a blog post, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy indicated that he and Herrington have worked together on the company’s “S-team” since 2011. The S-team represents an inner circle of C-level executives at Amazon across various areas of business including retail, cloud computing, advertising and operations.

Alongside Herrington’s arrival, Jassy announced that senior vice president, global delivery services John Felton has been selected to lead Amazon’s restructured and unified operations department. Felton himself is an S-teamer and an 18-year veteran at Amazon, and will oversee the company’s warehouses and delivery networks.

The details of the reorganization haven’t been made public, but two of Amazon’s most senior Black executives who worked within the affected divisions are departing the company, according to various reports.

S-team member Alicia Boler Davis, senior vice president of global customer fulfillment, and David Bozeman, vice president of transportation services, are both leaving, the reports said. Their departures leave the company without any Black talent on its senior leadership team.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. Felton reportedly notified employees of their departure in an email.

“They scaled our operations, launched new capabilities and programs, and demonstrated relentless passion to make our operations better each and every day,” Felton said.

Amazon has long been criticized for a lack of diversity in senior leadership, and remains the subject of a race and gender discrimination lawsuit in which an employee accused the company last year of “down-leveling” prospective Black employees into lower roles than they applied for, as well as promoting them more slowly than white workers.

In 2020, Amazon set diversity goals to hire more Black employees for director and vice president roles, with the goal of doubling representation that year, and again over the next. The company said it saw a nearly 70 percent increase in Black directors and vice presidents in the U.S. in 2021.