Australian ‘budget bot’ wins Amazon robot challenge

A gantry-like design won the annual pick and pack competition.

An inexpensive robot has triumphed over its more sophisticated competition to win Amazon's annual Robotics Challenge. 'Cartman', a robot designed by the Australian Center for Robotic Vision (ACRV), was built from scratch for a fraction of the cost of other competing robots, and was even held together in places by cable ties.

This year's winner -- which netted its creators the AU$80,000 ($63,770) cash prize -- stood out from the competition because of its gantry-like design. Instead of a robotic arm, Cartman functions via a sliding mechanism that picks products from above, moving on three axes. At its end is a rotating gripper, which uses a suction cup or two-finger grip to grab the item. The parts for the robot were cheap by the standards of typical industrial robots, costing under AU$30,000 ($23,913).

The competition is designed to showcase automated solutions to the challenges Amazon faces in its goods warehouses. Robots are already used to move products around fulfilment centers, but the company -- like all online retailers -- still relies on humans to pick and box items for delivery.

Given the sophisticated robotics technology already on the market it seems that automated picking and packing is something that should already exist. But carrying out such a task properly involves a complex mix of object and pose recognition, grasp and motion planning, and task execution, not to mention error detection and recovery, should things go awry. The Amazon competition tests a robots competency with three timed tasks: picking and packing specific products, retrieving and storing specific products, and a combination of the two. With Amazon already making ambitious strides in automation through its delivery drones, how long until humans are removed from its equation entirely?

Update: The image in this article has been updated to illustrate the competition's winning entry. The erroneously-issued original photo depicted a different entrant.