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Amazon finds new way to help robots take human jobs – with reptile-based tech


It’s a touchy problem, with a sticky solution.

Robots working in warehouses and product distribution centers lack the dexterity to perform certain tasks.

As Amazon notes in a patent received this week, “One heretofore significant drawback in such automation has been the difficulty that robotic inventory handlers have in manipulating objects that are irregularly shaped, irregularly positioned, or collapsible.”

In its ongoing efforts to replace human labor with machines, Amazon has patented a technology derived from the humble gecko, a wall-climbing lizard known for its adhesive feet.

To help clumsy-handed robots grab and move problematic items – which could also include airport baggage – Amazon’s patent looks to “fibrillary thin films” that, like the pads of a gecko’s toes, “can exhibit adhesive properties under strain” because of the way very fine hairs on the film engage with a surface, according to the patent.

Add such a film to a robotic gripper, and the machine’s capabilities jump, the patent said. And when the robot needs to let go, it stops exerting the force that makes the film temporarily sticky.

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Amazon, naturally, does not present this technology as a way to kill off human jobs. The company is fond of trotting out numbers showing that its warehouse workforce continues to expand as the company adds robots to the mix. And indeed, the machines have cut the company’s costs -with savings passed along to consumers – and improved its goods-handling efficiency, boosting market demand, leading to increased sales and a need for more workers.

But MIT economist David Autor noted to the Mercury News last year that the employment gains have likely come at the expense of jobs at other companies losing market share to Amazon.

And the Seattle e-commerce giant is busily pursuing a multitude of robotic technologies that would give machines the same skills as the “pickers” and “stowers” who make up a huge part of the firm’s expanding workforce. The company has held two annual competitions for development of the best robots for handling objects in warehouses, and this year’s “Amazon Robotics Challenge” will feature “enhanced versions of the Pick and Stow tasks,” according to Amazon.

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Photo: Amazon associate Renee Plascencia, of Stockton, gets ready to scan items before stowing them in a portable storage unit to be carried away by an Amazon Robotics robot at the Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy, Calif., on Tuesday, April 12, 2016. The robots travel inside the warehouse area and slide underneath portable storage units before lifting them off of the ground and taking them to waiting associates, or to be stored away. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

Tags: adhesive, amazon, employment, gecko, humans, Jobs, patent, robotics, robots