Their Amazon tour guides told the kids from Thornton’s STEM Launch School they could ask anything they wanted — and so, they did.
Who built the robots that populate the 800,000 square foot warehouse? What kind of software do they use to program them? How do they keep from running into each other — or into the humans that work in center, too?
It’s exactly the kind of curiosity the online retail company was hoping to inspire, according to General Manager Clint Autrey.
“This is our future,” Autrey said. “This is how we are going to continue to grow and develop. Amazon has taken huge stance when it comes to develop young leaders and this is one way to do it — bringing the STEM kids in here to see what we do with all the robots and technology in here.”
Autrey and his staff opened the doors to the Thornton warehouse and fulfillment center April 10, a kick off to National Robotic Week, which ran through April 14.
The center welcomed 10 of the school’s kindergarten-through-eighth grade students in, along with a small group of parents, teachers, Principal Martin McCarthy and officials from the Adams 12 District.
Center employees let the kids show of some of the projects they’ve been working on before taking them on a guided tour of the four story operation.
And somewhere in middle, Autrey and his staff had a robot make a special delivery — a $25,000 check that will go to the school’s Family Makerspace, the school’s laboratory and library of high-tech gear. Teacher Deborah Harding, who manages the Makerspace, said that money will be put to good use.
“We could not do what we do without partnerships, and people like you that allow us to buy equipment,” Harding said. “This means I can buy more equipment and now can explore even more and not be worried about burning out the equipment. And that’s important, because I want them to explore.”
The kids have been using the lab to build automatic lighting systems and computer games she said, and she just bought her first batch of arduinos and Raspberry Pi computers. Both are open source and easily customizable computer and robotics.
Principal McCarthy said the Makerspace has been in operation for two years, including the summer of 2018. All 850 students in the school are welcome to use the equipment.
“We are developing it in two ways,” he said. “One is a lending library, hardware that students and family can check out.”
McCarthy noted that programmers that get really skilled tend to practice outside of the classroom, and that’s tough for most of the schools students. Many of their families can’t afford home computers, so they Makerspace fills that gap.
“This donation will go along way towards us being able to buy hardware that these kids can use to experiment and learn on their own,” he said. “The other side is to create learning spaces and tools so parents and other kids can come in and get up to speed on some of this new technology.”
One of the key draws for the students and their teachers was a chance to see dizzying ballet of robots and household goods that goes on in the warehouse.
It involved a full tour of the four-storie complex. Staffers even pulled one of the robots off line and removed the top so the students could examine it and see how it functioned.
The robots were initially designed and built by a company called Kiva, which was purchased by Amazon. Each robot is small — about the size of a medium-sized piece of luggage — and they track their location in the warehouse using special digital marks on the floor. Robots spend their day bringing rack of trays containing consumer goods of varying sizes to people by rolling under the racks, lifting them up and rolling them away.
When goods arrive, they are sorted and scanned and placed in racks — which a robot carries away until they are needed. When someone purchases one of the goods online, the robot fetches the rack, delivering it to a person who sends it on its way for packing and shipping.
The system, from the entire network on down to the individual robots, use a special proprietary object-oriented programming language to get their orders and keep track of their location.
Each robot is equipped with ultrasonic sensors which let them keep track of each other and avoid accidents. People are not allowed in the robot area for safety reasons — unless they are wearing special vests which broadcast on the same ultrasonic frequencies.
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