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MIT Technology Review

Forget drones, Amazon’s real robot innovation is in the warehouse

Amazon's Pegasus robots.Amazon's Pegasus robots.

Amazon has developed two new robots that move products around its warehouses.

Worker bots: Amazon unveiled the robots—Pegasus and Xanthus—at its re:MARS conference in Las Vegas, where it also showcased a fancy new drone and a sidewalk delivery bot. But the warehouse upgrades are much more important.

Shelf shifting: The company has, of course, had robots operating inside its fulfillment centers for some time. Wheeled machines carry shelves stacked with goods over to human pickers, while conveyors sort and route items for packing and transport.

Automatic update: The new robots will see automation creep further through Amazon’s warehouses. Xanthus is an upgrade for Amazon’s shelf-bots that will let them operate in more environments. Pegasus is a completely new system that replaces the conveyors normally employed.

Robot revolution: Other companies might get more attention for flashy AI demos, but Amazon is at the forefront of developing more advanced robots. Unlike say Google or Facebook, Amazon’s bottom line depends on moving billions of items through fulfillment centers. The company also funds a contest designed to push the development of robots capable of picking products from shelves.

Brewing backlash: The situation is a little tricky for the company, though. It's often criticized for obliterating smaller businesses and its use of automation is likely to be draw criticism for replacing human workers. Unsurprisingly, Amazon is highlighting a new job, Flow Control Specialist, who monitors the Pegasus machines.

Jobs report: Many of the jobs Amazon might automate are mindless and repetitive, and not necessarily ones we want people to do. For more on this topic, and the economic impact of technology generally, check out our latest newsletter, fwd:Economy.