Amazon is looking to Sparrow to carry forward its robotics ambitions

Amazon is looking to Sparrow to carry forward its robotics ambitions

Westboro, Mass. — In a brightly lit warehouse located along an industrial road about 45 minutes west of Boston, a yellow-painted, neck-like mechanical arm reached out one recent morning and snatched a plastic jar holding powdered drink mix from a yellow box. The device rose, swirled around with a loud hum and gently placed the jar a few feet away in a gray basket.

It turned again towards the yellow box and soon after grabbed the DVD case, very different from the cylindrical jar, before quickly spinning again to drop the item into an adjacent bin.

The procedures look like those of an amusement park claw game, except they are executed quickly and smoothly, just like the countless motions workers make to select and pack millions of online orders per day in warehouses around the world.

But the robotic device, known as Sparrow, is equipped with suction cups and artificial intelligence software instead The eyes and hands of human workers. This is the last attempt by


com Inc. to automate more of its warehousing operations by shifting some of the most physically challenging and repetitive tasks onto robots.

Warehouse workers pick up, sort, and put things away millions of times a day. But Amazon is trying to get Sparrow to do something that robots have long struggled to achieve — pick up a variety of objects as easily as humans can, as well as recognize them by characteristics like color, shape, and size.

Joseph Quinlivan, Amazon’s Vice President of Global Robotics and Technology, said on November 10 at the device demonstration event that Sparrow is “a huge leap in technology challenge and technology development.”

Amazon has been criticized for the stringent requirements it places on workers in the name of efficiency. Warehouse workers at Amazon and other companies are at risk development of repetitive stress injuries and musculoskeletal disorders.

The company has launched safety programs and work schedules designed to reduce those injuries and said it sets expectations based on the overall performance of employees in a given warehouse to ensure people aren’t pushed beyond what is reasonable.

Amazon Sparrow robot in demonstration this month. Joseph Quinlivan, Amazon’s vice president of global robotics and technology, said the Sparrow device represented “a huge leap in technology challenge and technology development.”


Scott Brawer/Bloomberg News

The company said the bird is supposed to be the next step in this safety process. Mr Quinlivan said the bot will “really help transform our network in our repetitive motion challenges”.

If Sparrow can eventually handle items as diverse as vitamins on a large scale,


and boxed board games Amazon’s stalled logistics operations could push forward through a period of cost-cutting across the company, including within its robotics division.

The company said Sparrow can handle millions of items, which is about 65% of Amazon’s total inventory. Amazon initially intends to use it to bundle items together in each order just before it is packaged. If that works, Amazon has “much broader” plans for the technology, said Xavier Fan Chau, a spokesman for the company’s robotics operations.

The ability to use a robotic arm to pick orders would represent a major breakthrough in warehouse automation, said Reuben Scriven, a senior analyst at research firm Interact Analysis. He said the order picking process accounts for nearly half of warehouse labor costs.

“If you’re able to automate that, that’s really kind of the holy grail and the last frontier of automation,” Mr. Scriven said.

Added many logistics operators robotic arms to their warehouse, especially over the past two years during the Covid-19 pandemic as e-commerce orders soared and warehouses struggled to find enough workers and turned to robots to fill the gaps. These devices typically operate in relatively standardized processes, with elements packaged in similar ways that allow the mechanical arms to act like factory robots.

If you can automate that [order picking]This is kind of the holy grail and the last frontier of automation.”

– Reuben Scriven, senior analyst at the research firm Interact Analysis

Recreating the movement and flexibility of the human hand has long eluded robot developers. It could be bots used to pollinate flowers And to evaluate Temperature and shape are acres of cropsbut identifying, picking up and moving many different types of objects turned out to be elusive.

Amazon uses other robotic arms in its warehouses, including two models that handle packages.

Mr. Scriven said he expects Amazon’s move to add more robotic arms to its fulfillment centers will likely lead to a wave of competitors looking to boost their automation capabilities.

“It’s going to be a really pivotal moment for the industry,” he said. “As with most things, when Amazon starts doing something, everyone else follows.”

This month, Amazon also showed off new technologies at its robotics manufacturing facility in Westboro, Massachusetts, including robots that can carry heavy carts through warehouses and delivery drones that can fly through weather conditions such as light rain.

Amazon workers at its robotics facility in Westboro, Mass. The new robots are not expected to replace warehouse employees but will lead to more roles working with robots, the company said.



Mr. Quinlivan said the new bots are not expected to replace human workers in Amazon warehouses but will lead to more roles that require training in managing and working with bots. He said the company added more than 700 new types of jobs as it introduced more technologies.

The company is looking to advance its warehouse automation with Amazon CEO Andy Jassy starting to roll out Plan to reduce costs that will include Layoffs across company employees, including job cuts in robotics research. Recently, company officials say, the group of robots has sped up decisions about which projects to cut and which to move forward with.

Amazon said it plans to lay off 2% of its robotics staff and expects many of those workers to be offered jobs elsewhere within the company. It did not disclose the number of employees in the robotics department.

Amazon began its robotics research in 2012 Buy Kiva Systems Inc. , an acquisition that made the e-commerce company a leader in warehouse automation. It continued its efforts earlier this year By purchasing D. Cloostermans – Huwaert NVa Belgian designer of software that manages the flow of robots in industrial arenas.

Sparrow, which Amazon developed using parts from other unspecified companies, is one project that appears to be moving forward even as the company backs off other operations.

Mr Quinlivan said the robotic arm is now being tested in a warehouse in Texas to meet challenges including how it handles fragile items such as Christmas decorations.

“This is probably one of the biggest challenges in this field,” he said.

He said the machine will work on customer orders next year, but will not yet be rolled out across the company’s warehouses globally.

Write to Liz Young at

Corrections and amplifications
Westboro, Massachusetts, west of Boston. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Westboro is east of Boston. (corrected November 18)

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