Amazon showcases the latest in robotics, drones and electric vehicles in Westborough

Amazon showcases the latest in robotics, drones and electric vehicles in Westborough

Amazon unveiled its two newest warehouse robots Thursday, and both devices have been developed and will be manufactured in its Boston suburban facilities.

The first, called the Sparrow, is an automated system for emptying containers of miscellaneous items, identifying and holding anything from a paper book to a bag of pet food, and re-sorting items for delivery. Proteus is a slender, cylindrical robot that can autonomously navigate the floor of a warehouse, avoid collisions with people, and move wagons loaded with packages that can weigh 800 pounds.

The new robots were demonstrated at Amazon’s first public media event to highlight the massive robotics facility in Westborough. The 350,000-square-foot building opened last year and houses R&D and testing efforts, as well as six manufacturing lines.

A second facility in North Reading has four additional manufacturing lines. Together, the two Massachusetts offices have designed and built more than 520,000 robots owned by Amazon deployed in its warehouses, the company said.

Robots work inside the New England Amazon Robotics Innovation Center in Westborough on November 10, 2022. David L Ryan/Globe Stuff

“This is the first event we’ve ever done like this where we’ve let people go through the door and behind the curtain,” said Joe Quinlivan, Amazon Vice President of Robotics and IT Fulfillment.

Quinlivan promised that Amazon will have more advanced bots soon. “What we will do in the next five years will dwarf anything we have done in the past ten years,” he said.

Amazon Robotics, created when the company bought locally Kiva Systems a decade ago, form part of the core Boston’s booming robotics system. Along with other powerful companies such as Boston Dynamics and iRobot, Amazon is located in shoppingThe Westborough and North Reading facilities are a magnet for the best robotics talent and also fuel new suppliers and start-ups in the region.

At Thursday’s event, Amazon showcased hardware developed to help Sparrow accommodate all kinds of things — the company ships more than 100 million different products to customers around the world. Meanwhile, Proteus has a suite of low-cost sensors developed in-house to detect people in its path and chart a clearer path through the depot.

“The latest in science previously was that the robot would stop, just freeze until people cleared the area in front of it,” Tay Brady, chief technology officer at Amazon Robotics, said in an interview. “Alternatively, Proteus can actually get his way, as if he were walking into a cocktail party.”

Proteus also has a diverse face, with electronic lights forming “eyes” and “mouth” that can change different colors to help human operators understand where they are trying to get to and what they are trying to do.

An Amazon Prime Air Delivery drone (bottom left) that will be used for delivery. David L Ryan/Globe Stuff

“It has expressions…to give it a little feel,” said Mikkel Taylor, the project’s lead artistic program manager. She said the inspiration came from farm animals.

In September, Amazon Buyer Brady said the warehouse robotics company Cloostermans is based in Belgium but plans to continue manufacturing the machines in Massachusetts.

“I haven’t lost sight of that 150 years ago, this was the manufacturing hub of the world with the textile industry,” he said. “It’s a decision we’ve made to keep it local, to help create new jobs, not just at Amazon, but with suppliers…in our manufacturing chain, and also because of the talent here.”

On Thursday, Amazon also showed off a new delivery drone, dubbed the MK30, that it said would be ready to deliver packages to customers in 2024, as well as its new electric-powered truck developed by modern automaker Rivian. Amazon has already deployed 1,000 electric trucks in 100 cities, including Boston.

Amazon first open It was working on the delivery of drones on its “60 Minutes” program in 2013, and expects to start service within four to five years. But the project took longer than expected. Earlier this year, Amazon said it would begin drone deliveries of items weighing up to 5 pounds in Lockford, California, and College Station, Texas.

Amazon offered a media tour and demonstration of its robots, electric delivery vans and drones at its robotics headquarters in Westborough on November 10, 2022. David L Ryan/Globe Stuff

These deliveries will be made via Amazon’s MK27 drone, a large, hexagonal flyer that can fly to a customer’s home independently and unload a parcel from about 10 feet in the air.

The new MK30 model revealed on Thursday will be smaller, lighter and less noisy.

The delays are partly due to the required development of regulations and safety requirements, according to David Carbon, vice president in charge of Amazon’s drone unit, Prime Air.

“It’s not really that hard to deliver a package by drone,” Carbon said. “It is an entirely different problem to design, build, certify and operate an autonomous and critical safety system that can operate in densely populated environments within national airspace.”


Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter Tweet embed.


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