Ten years after launching its robotics division, Amazon just unveiled its most advanced autonomous mobile robot (AMR) to date — and it could shake up the warehouse workplace.
Proteus isn’t Amazon’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) debut in the AMR space, but it’s the first robot the company has produced that it describes as “fully autonomous.” Proteus is unlike the other robots Amazon has released over the years that are caged off from employees. Rather, it’s designed to move packages throughout the company’s warehouses alongside human workers.
In the past, Amazon has promoted its warehouse robots as companions more than competitors. But with an already shaky labor situation that, per a leaked memo, the e-commerce firm believes could evolve into a full-blown hiring drought by 2024, adding fully autonomous robots to the mix could have implications for plans to address its warehouse issues.
A different kind of robot
Amazon Robotics was launched a decade ago following the acquisition of robotic order fulfillment company Kiva Systems for $775 million. Since then, Amazon has built thousands of robots, but it has kept them mostly separate from humans until now.
One of the earliest use cases for Amazon robots came during the winter holiday season in 2014, when the company installed 15,000 automated guided vehicles (AGVs) across its U.S. facilities. Unlike the new Proteus AMR, the AGVs followed set paths along the warehouse floor, transporting racks of goods.
By the winter 2015, Amazon’s warehouse robot fleet doubled in size to 30,000. Within the next year, it ballooned another 50% to reach 45,000. By 2019, the company boasted it had 200,000 robots operating worldwide.
Proteus is a different kind of robot.
“Proteus is our first fully autonomous mobile robot,” Amazon said in a blog post. “Historically, it’s been difficult to safely incorporate robotics in the same physical space as people. We believe Proteus will change that while remaining smart, safe and collaborative.”
Proteus is like a heavy-duty version of Bert, a “Sesame Street”-inspired AMR that was revealed to be in testing last year. Bert is able to navigate facilities and avoid employees independently, and workers can direct it to transport goods across the warehouse.
Proteus operates in a similar way, using perception and navigation tools to learn its environment. But although Bert is used mainly for smaller loads or individual items, a video shows Proteus carrying large racks of products with heavier payloads.
Amazon said Proteus initially will be stationed in handling areas for GoCarts, its term for the heavy-wheeled shelves that pack its fulfillment and sortation centers. Eventually, the e-commerce giant hopes to automate the entire GoCart system network wide.
In the blog post announcing Proteus’ release, Amazon also unveiled Cardinal, a robotic sortation arm the company is trialing with 50-pound packages. It said it hopes to deploy Cardinal in fulfillment centers next year.
What it means for workers
The massive marketplace has always touted the safety benefits of its robot workers — and this occasion was no exception.
“Our vision is to automate GoCart handling throughout the network, which will help reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects through our facility and instead let them focus on more rewarding work,” the Amazon blog post said.
But while Amazon executives have said robots “make those jobs better and safer,” the company’s own data calls that claim into question. According to internal data shared by Reveal, the rate of serious injuries at Amazon fulfillment centers from 2016 to 2019 was 50% higher in facilities with robots than in those without.
One particular incident in 2018 involving a can of bear spray landed 24 Amazon employees in the hospital, bringing renewed criticism of the company’s safety record.
“Amazon’s automated robots put humans in life-threatening danger today, the effects of which could be catastrophic and the long-term effects for 80-plus workers are unknown,” said Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the same group that attempted to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama in 2020.
Watch: Robots and the future of warehousing
Since then, things haven’t changed much. Per an April 2022 report, the rate of serious injuries at Amazon warehouses in the U.S. is more than double other warehouses. The report also noted injuries at Amazon’s robotic warehouses are still more frequent than at its nonrobotic warehouses.
The data shows Amazon’s warehouse robots may not be the safest — so why does it continue to promote them? The answer may be the e-commerce giant is looking to be less reliant on human workers as it contends with nagging labor issues.
The firm was making more than the usual number of headlines a few months ago after one of its facilities in Staten Island, New York, voted to unionize. That marked the first successful union vote in Amazon’s 28-year history and it could change the company from the inside out as workers push for more rights and protections.
In a leaked 2021 memo obtained by Recode, Amazon research revealed concerns that it could run out of people to hire in the U.S. by 2024. In the memo, company staff predicted automation would be one of six “levers” the firm could pull to stave off labor shortages.
“If we continue business as usual, Amazon will deplete the available labor supply in the U.S. network by 2024,” internal research concluded.
It seems the automation lever may have already been pulled. In April, the company launched a billion dollar fund to invest in warehouse technologies and again asserted the money would go toward technologies intended to boost workplace safety.
Now, with the arrival of Proteus, it seems full autonomy is finally coming to Amazon fulfillment centers — for better or worse for warehouse employees.