How Amazon robotics engineers continue to build technologies from their garages


At Amazon, we’re constantly innovating to support our employees, customers, and communities as effectively as possible. As our fulfillment and delivery teams have been hard at work supplying customers with items during the pandemic, Amazon’s robotics team has been working behind the scenes to re-engineer robots and processes to increase safety in our fulfillment centers.

While some folks are able to do their jobs at home with just a laptop and internet connection, it’s not that simple for other employees at Amazon, including those who spend their days building and testing robots. Some engineers have turned their homes into R&D labs to continue building these new technologies to better serve our customers and employees. Their creativity and resourcefulness to keep our important programs going is inspiring. Here are a few of their stories.

Building autonomous mobile robots from a garage in Boulder

Our Canvas robotics team in Boulder, Colo., uses spatial artificial intelligence to create small autonomous carts that can move items through Amazon fulfillment centers to expedite the delivery of goods. By using state-of-the-art cameras and sensors, these self-driving carts perceive their continuously changing surroundings, while computer vision allows them to adapt and self-direct their movement.

In March, this team made final preparations in support of a stay-at-home order from the city. In just a day, they moved testing and manufacturing equipment and core operations from our combined office and lab space to several team members’ homes. Then the magic really began, enabling them to build, test, calibrate, and validate fully functioning prototypes of our next generation autonomous carts from home.

Team members in Boulder loading equipment to move to their homes. Source: Amazon

Evan Snyder, a hardware support engineer, built the sub-components from a newly created work bench in his apartment living room. We all know what working from a laptop looks like, but it has to be cool to see an oscilloscope out of its natural element.

Amazon oscilloscope

Workspace with an oscilloscope in Evan Snyder’s apartment. Source: Amazon

Evan then transferred the sub-assembly components to begin the full prototype build at the home of fellow Hardware Support Engineer Mohamed Shanata. Within 24 hours from receiving the components, Shanata assembled a functioning autonomous cart in his garage, an outstanding feat outside of a lab. His three kids, Zeina, Nour, and Hamza, loved watching their daddy build a robot from his new home workstation.

Once the prototype was built, the robot was transported to the home of R&D technician Noah Sharit to implement and test the safety systems. From his garage, Sharit was actually able to improve on an early design of the safety system.

Finally, the robot arrived at the home of Fernando Nobre, a computer vision scientist who worked to improve the cameras by converting his garage into a calibration lab. Here, Nobre implemented the technical processes to calibrate the camera systems to enable a 3D reconstruction of the carts’ surroundings — this way, the cart could find its own path among conveyors, pallets of products and constantly moving equipment and people. Incredible work.

Amazon calibration

Calibration room and ice wall in Fernando Nobre’s garage. Source: Amazon

All in all, six robots circulated through seven team member homes, with precautions taken like disinfection on each transition. As our autonomous carts become more common across Amazon Operations, we will look back and remember the early innovations that came to life through these employees and their commitment to continue inventing in their Colorado garages.

Building the Scout delivery robot in a Seattle garage

More magic at home is happening on our Scout delivery bot service. A fully electric delivery system, Amazon Scout safely gets packages to customers using autonomous delivery devices. We’re constantly thinking through how our Scout devices will integrate into the neighborhood and delight customers. As our first-generation bots are making deliveries to homes in a handful of neighborhoods now, our team is working on developing the next-gen bot from their own homes in Seattle.

Jeff Gorges, one of our mechanical engineers, has been doing some of the engineering prototyping from his home garage. In March, he transformed his garage into an R&D lab of motors and wheels — as he said, “Finally a good excuse for organizing my garage.”

In between trading shifts with his wife to care for his 1-year-old daughter, he spent working hours iterating on the bot from his garage workbench. When the weather cooperated, he took the bot for a spin around the back patio to test the updated drive train.

Over the past few months, he’s assembled and debugged this next-gen prototype all from his home. As Scout rolls further into the future, delivering smiles to more homes, we’ll remember Jeff’s home and its important role in Scout’s history.

Amazon interns have the opportunity to innovate from home

As we’ve shifted our summer intern program to be virtual, more than 250 interns across robotics will work from their homes. Many will have the opportunity to build their own summer projects. We can’t wait to see their resourcefulness and creativity.

In the folklore of the high tech industry, we’ve heard stories of history being made in people’s sheds or garages. Years from now, we will look back and remember how our innovation teams met this moment and the major milestones reached — from their garages.

Brad Porter, Amazon VP

About the author

Brad Porter is a vice president and distinguished engineer leading Amazon’s robotics initiatives including robotic drive units, recent Canvas acquisition, the Scout delivery bot program, and Prime Air drone delivery.

Editor’s note: This blog post is republished with permission from Inc.

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