Amazon unveils new robotic arm and a drone that can fly in the rain

11 Nov 2022

The Sparrow robotic arm. Image: Amazon

While the new robotic inventions are a cause of concern for some Amazon employees, there are reports of a cost-cutting review of the Alexa unit.

Warehouse and delivery employees at Amazon have some reason to worry as the online shopping giant has unveiled its most advanced robotic arm yet and an upgraded delivery drone that can fly in ‘light’ rain.

Called Sparrow, the robot arm is Amazon’s latest invention to streamline the fulfilment process by identifying, sorting and moving millions of diverse products before they get packaged.

While the company already has warehouse robots – such as Robin, Cardinal and Proteus, which redirect and transport packages to different sites in the warehouse before delivery – Sparrow is Amazon’s first robot that can handle individual products in its inventory.

Described by Amazon as a “major advancement” in industrial robotics, Sparrow uses computer vision and artificial intelligence to recognise and handle the millions of items and is expected to “work with” existing warehouse employees.

Such advancements in robotics raise concerns around the future of certain jobs. Thousands of warehouse workers perform similar roles of sorting and moving.

However, Amazon said that the development of robotics across its operations has created more than 700 new categories of jobs in the company.

“Beyond the technological advancements of Sparrow, what we’re truly excited about are the implications the technology has and the ways it will benefit our employees and customers,” the company wrote in its announcement.

“Working with our employees, Sparrow will take on repetitive tasks, enabling our employees to focus their time and energy on other things, while also advancing safety.

“Supporting our employees and helping them transition and advance their career into roles working with our technology is an important part of how we will continue to innovate.”

Amazon opened its first fulfilment centre in Ireland in August and said it would create 500 new jobs for engineers, HR and IT professionals, health, safety and finance specialists and operations managers.

Prime Air drone

Sparrow was unveiled at the Delivering the Future event near Boston yesterday (10 November), where Amazon also revealed its latest in drone delivery: the MK30.

Due to come into service in 2024, the MK30 delivery drone is an upgrade on existing drone technologies Amazon has been working on.

Amazon said the new drone is lighter and smaller than previous ones, with an increased range, temperature tolerance, new safety features, and even the ability to fly in “light” rain.

The previous iteration of Amazon’s Prime Air drone, the MK27-2, will soon start making deliveries across two US locations later this year: Lockeford, California and College Station, Texas.

“While it’s impossible to eliminate all risks from flying, we have taken a proven aerospace approach to design safety into our system,” the company said.

“As always, our newest drone will go through rigorous evaluation by national aerospace authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration to prove its safety and reliability.”

Alexa, cut costs

The news of Amazon’s latest inventions in fulfilment comes at a bad time for some other units in the business, including the loss-making devices unit. Sources have told The Wall Street Journal that CEO Andy Jassy is reviewing loss-making units in Amazon with a view to cut costs.

This reportedly includes the capital-heavy Alexa business, which employs more than 10,000 people and has had an operating loss of more than $5bn a year.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic