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Robotic Technology

Making the right pick

By Nick Wright

Amazon to put material handling robots to the test at ICRA conference in May

March 2015 - On May 26 to 30 this year, the International Conference on Robotics and Automation will be held in Seattle. One highlight of the conference will be the first ever Amazon Picking Challenge, a veritable skills competition for not necessarily the humans in attendance, but the robots running on intellect programmed by them. The goal of the competition is to push the development of robotics in e-commerce and material handling environments.

Among the 21 university teams competing in the picking challenge are Rutger University’s PRACSYS Lab, the University of Texas Nuclear Robotics Group (NRG), and Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Autonomous Robotic Collaboration Lab (ARC). Each team has received a Motoman dual-arm robot from Yaskawa Motoman, Miamisburg, Ohio.

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“In the case of WPI and Rutgers, their applications and submitted demo videos documented considerable strength in vision and path planning, says Erik Nieves, Motoman’s technology director. “UT has a long history using our robots and are very familiar with our technology.”

This first Amazon Picking Challenge presents a simplified take on what can be a complex, cluttered picking environment. To test the robots, they will be placed in front of a stationary Kiva shelf. According to the ICRA, there won’t be many items on the shelf at first. There will be bins holding a single item or several of the same item. Other bins might contain completely different items, varying in size to replicate what could be random products in a warehouse. “Some will be solid cuboids, but some will be items that are pliable and/or harder to grasp,” according to the ICRA.

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It won’t be a cold one-shot competition, though. Qualifying teams will get to practice on bins, shelves and sample products from Amazon ahead of time. Any type of robot is allowed in the competition—it doesn’t need to be a humanoid, like the well-publicized Baxter from Rethink Robotics, which is also one of the partner companies of the competition. Robots movement will be dictated by the challenge data, and each will have to act autonomously. Scores are determined by how many specified items are picked up within a timeframe. Teams will incur point penalties for robots that mishandle, bobble, pick up the wrong items or break them. The winning top three teams get $20,000, $5,000 and $1,000, respectively.

Mitch Pryor, a research scientist at University of Texas who is guiding the NRG team, says the team has borrowed a Yaskawa SDA5D for the competition. “This robot recently arrived in our lab and we are busy porting our software and hardware peripherals to get the whole system up and running,” he says. As for practicing, the team has been testing some of its algorithms on the Amazon-provided shelf and competition, but he declined to elaborate further.

FFJournal will post the winners when they’re announced in late May. FFJ

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