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Robotic tossing machines
A diagram from Amazon’s patent application shows robotic arms coordinating their movements to toss a dwarf figurine, a mug and a rubber ducky into designated warehouse bins. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Robots are nothing new for Amazon’s fulfillment centers, but a newly issued Amazon patent envisions robots that could toss items around those centers.

The 27-page patent, published Tuesday, describes robotic arms or manipulators that can use sensors to identify objects, figure out how best to grab onto them, calculate the required trajectories and fling the objects into chutes or bins.

“The tossing strategy may be based at least in part upon a database containing information about the item, characteristics of the item, and/or similar items, such as information indicating tossing strategies that have been successful or unsuccessful for such items in the past,” the patent reads.

There could even be mobile drive units, trundling around a warehouse and communicating with each other as well as with a central station to make sure the right items get tossed in the right place at the right time. Warehouse workers could use smartphone apps or other types of software tools to control the toss.

The patent application was filed back in 2015, and the mere fact that a patent was issued doesn’t mean the robotic tossing machine will ever be built.

“We do not have any robotic tossing systems in our fulfillment centers,” Amazon said in a statement emailed to GeekWire. “That said, we do have a variety of robotics in our fulfillment centers, including drive units, palletizers and a RoboStow, which is a 6-ton robot that moves pallets of products 24 feet high and directly onto our drive units for faster movement throughout our fulfillment centers.”

This patent drew some extra attention because of one of the examples that was tossed around in the application: a dwarf figurine. That didn’t sit well with the Little People of America.

“Anytime that ‘tossing’ and ‘dwarf,’ that those words are put together, is a real concern for us,” Michelle Kraus, advocacy director for the organization, told the Mercury News when she heard about the patent. “It really opens up the possibility of mocking and really dehumanizing little people, people of short stature.”

The dwarf figurine is the most prominent example cited in the application, but Amazon noted that there are others.

“The patent talks about everyday inventory items, including a mug, dwarf figurine and rubber ducky,” the company said. “The intention was simply to illustrate a robotic arm moving products, and it should not be taken out of context.”

Update for 11:50 a.m. PT July 19: In a follow-up phone interview, Kraus told GeekWire that the patent has been “drawing quite a response from our community and our allies.”

“It’s pretty shocking and upsetting,” said Kraus, who’s looking into the best way to follow up with the right people at Amazon. “We’re hoping for a dialogue … but we’ll see,” she said.

“They don’t quite appreciate that the example they’re using is a replica of a human being,” Kraus said.

As an advocate for little people, Kraus is well-acquainted with belittling depictions on TV and in popular culture. “People with dwarfism are easy targets,” she said, “and it’s still easy to marginalize us in this way.”

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