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The robots are unloaded and ready for practice runs at the Amazon Robotics Challenge. (Facebook Photo)

Teams from around the world are competing to help create more efficient robots for Amazon — robots that can pick up and stow items into boxes, and help some teams walk away with hefty cash prizes.

Sixteen teams are in the running this year at RoboCup 2017 in Nagoya, Japan. They’ll start the competition on Thursday and finish off on Sunday. Most of the teams are from universities, but some have companies such as Mitsubishi and Toshiba in their troop.

The judges for the Amazon Robotics Challenge will select the winner after putting the contenders through a series of challenges. For the picking contest, the robots choose items from a shelf and put them into a box. Like baggers at the grocery store, they have to make sure all the items fit, or teams lose points.

The stow challenge is like the picking portion, but backwards. Robots must take items out of a tote and sort them into cubbies, getting bonus points for putting items into more crowded cubbies.

Because the robot is going to be a model Amazonian, it can’t take up a lot of space or be so noisy that it disturbs the workers around it — and it must work autonomously.

Teams usually know what items the robot has to grab ahead of time, but this year’s contest is different from previous years because half of the items will be replaced with things that the robots probably have never seen before.

Many teams have suction or claw machine-type mechanisms on their robots, but for items that are heavy or don’t create a good seal, those grabbers don’t always work. Last year, a Dutch robot built by Team Delft featured a gripper-suction hybrid that could be used when the vacuum-style grabber didn’t work. Team Delft ended up taking first prize.

Carlos Hernandez Corbato, the captain who led Team Delft to victory, said the Amazon Robotics Challenge opened many doors. In the wake of the win, robotics manufacturers have been contacting the team, wanting to do more research.

“This challenge was the most exciting project I have ever done in research and the most gratifying because of how much we learned,” he said in a statement.

Team Delft isn’t competing this year, but Duke University, which placed eighth last year, is looking to make a comeback.

Kris Hauser, a faculty adviser for Team Duke, said this year’s competition is more difficult because the competition space has been built to look more like Amazon’s real warehouse, with items packed more closely together.

But Hauser says Duke is ready: This year, the team has designed a faster, more precise robot with improved abilities to perceive the items placed in front of it, plan out its grasp and pack them up.

“Unlike last year, when Duke fielded a majority undergrad team mostly as an educational exercise, this year we are trying more seriously to win,” he told GeekWire.

The Wall Street Journal reported that e-commerce in the U.S. reached $390 billion in 2016, so online retailers like Amazon may need these robots in the future to keep up with the demand. However, this isn’t necessarily the case for teams from other countries competing in the challenge.

Gary Mortimer, a professor at Queensland University of Technology, an Australian competitor, says open-source solutions from contests like these could help Amazon’s anticipated move into the Australian market in the coming years. For now, though, the cost is just too high.

“Amazon, in its current form, isn’t likely to make a massive impact on Australia’s retail market because we only buy about 7 percent of our goods online,” he said in a statement.

The Australian team took sixth place in the 2016 competition, and team leader Juxi Leitner said the competition for this year’s $250,000 prize pool will be fierce.

“You won’t believe how hard is it to teach a robot to see a clear bottle of water among a bunch of groceries, or teach it the best way to pick up a bag of marbles,” he said.

The inaugural challenge was held in 2015 in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle, and last year’s competition was conducted during RoboCup 2016 in Leipzig, Germany. This year’s contest in Nagoya solidifies the Amazon Robotics Challenge’s status as a RoboCup tradition.

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