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Amazon's Robot 'Elves' Help Fill Cyber Monday Orders

Amazon Warehouse Robots
Wheeled robots, designed by Kiva Systems, are helping Amazon employees fill online orders. (Image credit: Amazon)

On one of the busiest online shopping days of the year, thousands of bright-orange, pancake-shaped robots are buzzing around Amazon's shipping centers, rushing to fill the company's Cyber Monday orders.

Last year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he eventually plans to use drones to deliver packages to online shoppers, but while the Federal Aviation Administration crafts official regulations for the commercial use of drones, the online retail giant has found an intermediate step: flat, wheeled robots that zoom around Amazon's warehouses, carrying 7-foot-tall (2.1 meters) stacks of books, electronics and toys.  

The robots navigate on a grid system made of bar-code stickers stuck to the warehouse floor. The bots know which products to gather by scanning the bar codes as they roll along. The flat robots can slip under shelves full of products, lift them up and transport them back to employees, who then sort out the individual orders. The robots can lift shelves that weigh up to 750 lbs. (340 kilograms), according to the company's website. [The 6 Strangest Robots Ever Created]

While many shoppers rushed out to stores on Black Friday, some waited until Cyber Monday to take advantage of online deals. Cyber Monday is the biggest online shopping day of the year, which means companies like Amazon have a huge number of orders to pack and ship.

In order to uphold its reputation for fast deliveries, Amazon hired 80,000 seasonal workers in anticipation of Cyber Monday and the holiday shopping season, according to a report released by the company. Last year, Amazon sold about 426 items per second on Cyber Monday, and the online retailer expects to sell even more this year.

Amazon also uses huge robotic arms to lift bundles of products. (Image credit: Amazon)

Amazon bought the robot-building company Kiva Systems back in 2012 and now has about 15,000 of Kiva Systems' packing robots operating in its shipping centers. The robots are part of a larger packing and shipping system designed to improve efficiency. The system also includes huge robotic arms that can lift large bundles of products, and a sophisticated computer system for sorting items. This year, 10 of Amazon's 109 shipping centers are using robots to pick items and deliver them to employees for packing. 

Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president for operations, told the Associated Press that the robots will cut the Tracy, California, shipping center's operating cost by 20 percent. The robots aren't expected to cut any jobs — people are still needed to do more complex tasks, like packing the orders and searching for any damaged products, Clark told the Associated Press.

Amazon's next tech goals go beyond using robots to pack the orders — the company wants to use them for deliveries, too. The eventual goal of the program, called Prime Air, is to have drones drop off packages in customers' yards. However, the FAA has currently banned commercial drone use until regulations are in place in 2015. The FAA would need to grant Amazon an exemption from these rules before the company can continue developing its drone delivery system.

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Kelly Dickerson
Kelly Dickerson is a staff writer for Live Science and She regularly writes about physics, astronomy and environmental issues, as well as general science topics. Kelly is working on a Master of Arts degree at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, and has a Bachelor of Science degree and Bachelor of Arts degree from Berry College. Kelly was a competitive swimmer for 13 years, and dabbles in skimboarding and long-distance running.