Amazon's latest patent award describes a robot with arms and grasping capabilities that could toss an item into a chute or bin in a fulfillment center.
The patent, titled "Robotic Tossing of Items in an Inventory System," further described how a robot configured with arms and/or manipulators could be equipped with a "sensor package" that could detect attributes of an item, such as weight size, RFID-encoded serial numbers and a range of other details. A controller device could then access a database to come up with the best strategy for tossing the item, and send instructions to the grasping robot to toss it accordingly.
The patent is the second robotics-related patent Amazon has been awarded in recent weeks. Another, published July 3, describes a "Mobile Configurable Conveyer Component" consisting of two robotic devices that could be used in a warehouse environment to create a mobile conveyor system where one is needed and where a pre-existing, fixed conveyer belt system may not be usable.
Amazon may be the most prolific user of robotics in warehouse spaces, with at least 100,000 at work throughout its warehouse and fulfillment ecosystem (and that number is about a year old). But Amazon doesn't appear content, as it keeps generating a steady stream of ideas for how to use them to enhance its fulfillment processes.
As for a potential throwing robot, Amazon had this vision a while ago, as the original filing date of the application was September 2015. By contrast, a patent for the robotic mobile conveyer system was awarded less than 16 months after the filing date. The time discrepancy between the awards could indicate there are a great many more ideas to come as Amazon considers how to apply robotics to its fulfillment centers to make them more efficient.
Of course, patents filed for new technology don't always mean tools will be built. But, even if they don't get further developed, patenting these ideas protects Amazon's leadership in this area. Still, both of these ideas hold the promise of augmenting Amazon's warehouses. Teaching a robot how to toss a package accurately into the correct chute or bin would save time compared with having a human employee or robot place it there by hand. Additionally, having a mobile conveyor system could make fulfillment center processes more flexible and efficient.
Amazon's patent diagrams for the throwing robot drew some fire. They depict the robot tossing a product, among other items, that the patent describes as a "dwarf figurine." The Little People of America likened it to "dwarf tossing," a game the group says "objectifies the entire dwarf community."
"Any time that 'tossing' and 'dwarf,' that those words are put together, is a real concern for us," Michelle Kraus, advocacy director for the organization, told the Mercury News. "It really opens up the possibility of mocking and really dehumanizing little people, people of short stature." Amazon did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The company told the Mercury news in a statement that the drawing "should not be taken out of context."
"The patent talks about everyday inventory items, including a mug, dwarf figurine, and rubber ducky," Amazon told the newspaper.