Amazon challenges students to develop robotic picker

Amazon recently held its inaugural “Amazon Picking Challenge” which inspired mechanical engineering and computer science students from around the world to design robots that can grab objects from warehouse shelves and place them in bins, tasks ordinarily done by people.

Amazon hopes to make its challenge a regular event that encourages innovation in robotics and steers academic research toward e-commerce automation.

Amazon budgeted a total of $26,000 for prizes and $60,000 for travel grants for more than 30 teams participating in the competition at the International Conference of Robotics and Automation in Seattle.

Amazon has made big investments in automation to make its operations more efficient. It purchased Kiva Systems Inc. in 2012 and has 15,000 robots deployed in its distribution centers. Those machines move entire shelving units, but picking individual items is a more difficult task for machines and is usually done by people.

That was the focus of the Amazon challenge. Each team’s robot tried to pick up a shopping list of items of varying shapes and sizes stored on shelves and place them in a bin.

Amazon Picking Challenge drew teams of students from 31 universities. Team RBO from the Technical University of Berlin, won the challenge (and $20,000) with 148 points, successfully moving 10 out of 12 objects in a 20-minute period.

Team MIT, which used a robotic arm with a flat scoop and a suction gripper, got second place with 88 points overall.

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