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Say hi to Proteus, Amazon’s most advanced warehouse robot yet

Amazon has unveiled its first fully autonomous mobile robot designed to help out at its distribution centers, though it’s not clear if it’ll be ready in time for the company’s fast-approaching and super-busy Prime Day shopping event.

The new robot, called Proteus, is a low-slung, wheel-based machine that trundles about on wheels. At first glance, and even second, it looks very much like a robot vacuum, but this device performs transportation tasks rather than cleaning duties. And just like a robot vacuum, Proteus uses sensors to help it navigate and avoid obstacles, including mobile ones such as humans.

As the video shows, Amazon’s new robot works by driving beneath a cart and then elevating to lift it off the ground. Proteus is then able to transport the cart to a designated destination.

The e-commerce giant has invested heavily in robot technology ever since it snapped up robotics specialist Kiva in 2012. But most of the warehouse robots that it has produced — among them Ernie and Bert — have had to work away from people for safety reasons.

Proteus is a lot more advanced, however, with its cutting-edge technology enabling it to work alongside humans without fear of causing a calamity.

Amazon said the robot can operate “in a manner that augments simple, safe interaction between technology and people, opening up a broader range of possible uses to help our employees, such as the lifting and movement of GoCarts, the non-automated, wheeled transports used to move packages through our facilities.” The company hasn’t said when Proteus will begin work, or if it has already started.

Another new robot, Cardinal, is a stationary device that uses artificial intelligence and computer vision to quickly sort packages weighing up to 50 pounds. Designed to reduce the risk of employee injuries by handling tasks that require lifting heavy objects and twisting in a confined space, Cardinal is expected to be deployed at Amazon warehouses next year.

Amazon is well aware that some observers believe the company is keen to completely replace its warehouse-based human staff with robots. However, it insists this is not the case, explaining that 10 years after its first major move toward robot technology, the business has added over a million jobs worldwide while deploying more than half a million robotic drive units. It also believes that its robotic technology allows its human staff to focus on work considered more rewarding.

“From the early days of the Kiva acquisition, our vision was never tied to a binary decision of people or technology,” Amazon said. “Instead, it was about people and technology working safely and harmoniously together to deliver for our customers. That vision remains today.”

With recent reports suggesting Amazon warehouse workers are suffering serious injuries at twice the rate of rival companies, Amazon is adamant that deploying more robots for particular tasks will help to reduce those numbers.

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