Monthly Archives: December 2013

Amazon’s biggest advance in robotics (it’s not the drones!)

Everyone is abuzz about Amazon’s new announcement of Amazon Air (see coverage from Ars Technica here).  The announcement, which aired on “60 Minutes” Sunday night, was teased throughout the prior week and played up nicely on Sunday, as correspondent Charlie Rose gasped in shock when Jeff Bezos revealed the robots to him.

On Monday morning, I expressed some skepticism on LinkedIn.  I wrote that while technically feasible,

Legally and logistically I think there’s a lot of unknowns. How high do they fly? What’s their approach altitude? Does the pilot fly with a camera? Can they see my backyard? Can they see through my windows? Can they see through my bedroom windows?! Are they taking pictures or video along the way? How are they planning to deliver to apartments – a drone just can’t drop everyone’s packages in front of the building. I’m sure there are smarter people than me who’ve thought about all these issues but I think they all come with safety and privacy concerns that need to be addressed.

I still think that’s all true.  But all this hullabaloo ignores the fact that Amazon already has amazing, cutting-edge, industry-changing robotics technology – it’s in their subsidiary, Kiva Systems.  Who is Kiva?  Kiva Systems is the developer of a cutting edge robotic warehouse automation system.  This technology basically allows robots to pull the items for your order from their bins in the warehouse, instead of needing humans to do so.  Kiva had big name clients like Zappos, Follett, Gap, Staples, Walgreens and Crate and Barrel as customers.  They were bringing in $100 million in revenue from these big-name customers.  Last November, Amazon bought Kiva Systems for $775 million.  Amazon wanted Kiva’s technology more tightly integrated into their own systems and didn’t want any competitors to have this technology at all.

And the fruits of this purchase were seen this past Black Friday.  The Boston Globe had a great story on Sunday about Kiva.  The story detailed how, by October, Amazon had deployed 1300 robots in its warehouses to automate order fulfillment.  It also talked to some of those former Kiva customers, who feel like they are now losing a competitive advantage now that Amazon owns this technology.

So while Amazon Air gets all the press, the robots from Kiva Systems will be saving Amazon millions this year and in the years to come.