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A robot that sucks just won an Amazon technology competition

Amazon Picking Challenge 2016 Pick Task Finals - Team Delft
The day when Amazon’s distribution centers are operated entirely by robots came a step closer this week after a Dutch-built robot took top prize in the company’s latest picking-and-packing contest.

The e-commerce giant already has robots working alongside human staff at many of its centers, though the machines are used for moving items across vast spaces rather than the more delicate task of pulling individual products from shelves.

In its quest to find a bot that can handle these more intricate tasks, Amazon recently launched its second picking-and-packing contest for robotics specialists around the world.

This year’s winning bot, the work of Dutch team Delft, features a suction cup, a two-fingered gripper, and a 3D-depth sensing camera – perfect for selecting and handling a range of delicate and awkwardly shaped items.

One of the tests included lifting specific items from shelves that contained a variety of products before packing them into a box. Sometimes the robot had to move other items out of the way in order to reach the product that needed packing.

Points were deducted for damaging items, dropping a product from a height of more than 30 cm (11.8 in), and placing an item on a shelf in such a way that it stuck out over the edge. The contest involved actions such as object recognition, grasp planning, task planning, task execution, and error detection and recovery.

“Because of the variation in items, you couldn’t have a single picking strategy,” Delft team member Kanter van Deurzen told the BBC. “We had to handle dozens varying from simple boxes to a T-shirt and a dumbbell – each required a different approach.”

Delft bagged $50,ooo for completing all the tasks almost perfectly, seeing off challenges from several American and Japanese teams at the contest in Leipzig, Germany.

Amazon described this year’s challenges as “significantly more difficult” than last year’s, with denser bins, occluded items, and products that were more difficult to see and grab making life more difficult for the bots.

“The teams rose to the challenge and demonstrated much more sophisticated perception and manipulation solutions,” the Seattle-based company said.

Amazon’s steady transition to robotic technology at its distribution centers allows it to make huge savings in labor costs. It already uses thousands of Kiva-made robots, enabling the company to save up to $1 billion a year.

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