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Amazon cleanup robot
A two-diagram sequence shows how an Amazon cleanup robot could open its robotic arms and pull a box into its storage pod. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

How does Amazon plan to keep automated warehouses free of debris? With automated cleanup robots, of course.

At least that’s a scenario laid out in a patent granted to the Seattle-based online retailer today. There’s no guarantee the cleanup robots will become a reality. But it makes a weird sort of sense to have robots pick up after messy robots.

The application, filed more than two years ago, describes a reporting network that can be used by workers, robots or sensor-equipped monitoring stations to alert a central control system to the presence of an out-of-place object – for example, a box that’s fallen out of a bin, or a piece of trash that’s been left in the aisle.

The central control system can cordon off the area electronically to keep the warehouse’s garden-variety worker bots out of harm’s way, and would then send out a cleanup robot to snag the object.

The robo-janitor could carry a specialized pod, built to conform to the specifications of a standard inventory bin. The pod could be equipped with a robotic arm to stash stuff in a carrying tray. Then the pod, and the stuff it contains, could be brought to a worker for inspection, put in the trash or shelved for follow-up processing.

The patent even suggests that the cleanup robot could carry an automated squeegee or brush, for tidying up the floor after it picks up the trash.

Amazon doesn’t typically comment on its patents, but this one strikes close to home. Late last year, the company reported that it was using 45,000 robotic units in 20 distribution centers. That’s a 50 percent increase over the robo-workforce tally that Amazon reported just before 2015’s holiday season.

What would the rise of robotic picker-uppers mean for Amazon’s flesh-and-blood cleanup crews? In their patent application, the inventors don’t address the bigger questions surrounding automation’s effects on employment. Those are issues more likely to be pondered by economists, policymakers … and science-fiction authors.

For now, the robots at Amazon’s fulfillment centers are still outnumbered by the humans. But if robots start picking up after the robots, what’s next?

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