Fetch Puts Robots To Work

New industrial robots could someday take over boring warehouse tasks. But what does that mean for warehouse jobs?

Fetch Robotics has a new vision for work in the warehouse — one in which a new generation of robots works side by side with humans.

On Wednesday, the Silicon Valley startup announced a pair of collaborative robots intended for light industrial use processing e-commerce shipments. Called Fetch and Freight, they're designed to work with humans, and they could be one more step toward putting robots to work in stores, restaurants, and even homes.

Melonee Wise, who joined Fetch Robotics as CEO last summer and received $3 million from Shasta and O'Reilly Ventures in February, told BuzzFeed News that there's a major market opportunity for building robots that can operate safely alongside people. "At some point, we have to deal with the real world," she said.

In a typical warehouse, a worker with a cart and a piece of paper walks around picking up boxes and bringing them to a central location to be packaged and shipped. Workers doing this job can walk up to 15 miles a day, Wise said, adding that some end up with injuries from repetitive strain. In a smaller subset of warehouses, those workers might be told what to pick up via a headset, or use a scanner to record the shipments they process. In around 5% of warehouses, Wise said, there might be a conveyer belt or other automated system. This includes Amazon's warehouses, which use Kiva, a logistics technology the company purchased in 2012.

Wise wants to change all that by bringing her Fetch and Freight mobile robots to the e-commerce floor. There are two ways the system can operate. In the first, Fetch uses its arm and telescoping spine to select boxes and hand them off to a Freight robot, which then carries them in bulk to a shipping area.

In the second, Freight works alongside a human. Responding to the spoken command "follow," the robot algorithmically identifies a warehouse worker's legs — based on shape and unique gait. It then follows them around the warehouse, using its sensors to avoid obstacles along the way. Once it's amassed a full load of packages, it carries them to the shipping area, possibly calling for another Freight robot to take its place.

Workers can communicate with both Fetch and Freight using simple voice commands, or a web application.

The Fetch system runs on ROS, an open-source operating system for robots that Wise says has been instrumental in helping Fetch to get off the ground quickly. With the rapid growth in the collaborative robotics industry and the logistics market, and Google ramping up its robotics division, a quick ramp can be a real strategic advantage. That said, Fetch and Freight are not yet market-ready. "We need to refine the technology with partners in real environments," said Wise, adding that Fetch Robotics is currently seeking partners in the e-commerce space.

So what effect might warehouse robots like Freight and Fetch have on jobs? Wise thinks they'll likely create more jobs than they eliminate. "Someone has to help maintain them; they don't fix themselves," she said. "Someone has to deploy them; they don't deploy themselves."

But others are less confident. They fear advances in robotics like those Fetch is making could someday put robots in restaurants or retail stores, threatening the employment of waiters and store clerks. Martin Ford, the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, believes the proliferation of light-industry robots is one of the last steps before robots enter the much larger American services industry. "The collaborative robots are focused on what you might think of as the last frontier of automation," he said.

Warehouse tasks like those Fetch and Freight perform are typically unattractive ones. And Wise points to the logistics industry's unusually high turnover rate of 25% and its struggles to maintain a good labor supply as evidence of a need for light-industry robots.

But just because such jobs are viewed as undesirable doesn't mean people don't need them. "You can't just say, well, let's get rid of these jobs because these jobs suck, and not give people an alternative," said Ford.

Though relatively early to the collaborative robotics space, Fetch doesn't lack competitors. Rethink Robotics has been working hard to improve its stationary robot Baxter, releasing a newer, more efficient version called Sawyer last month. With Google and Amazon also active in the space and a handful of companies outside the U.S. eyeing it too, it seems inevitable that robots of all shapes and sizes will increasingly be seen in a variety of workplaces. Wise, for her part, finds that possibility exciting. "It's getting heated," she says.

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