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Curious crowds sample Amazon’s high-tech supermarket

BELLEVUE, Wash. — The first full-service Amazon Fresh grocery store to take advantage of the retailer’s “Just Walk Out” cashierless shopping technology could well become a tourist attraction.

That’s what was on the mind of Romy Wada, who made the half-hour drive from Auburn to the store at Bellevue’s Factoria shopping center at 4:30 a.m. today to be the first in line to enter.

“I work for a tour company,” Wada explained as he waited in the morning sunshine. “We are handling Asian people, and sometimes they’re interested in the supermarkets at Amazon. So I just had to come here to check out everything.”

The crowd grew to more than 200 people, queued in the mall’s parking lot and down the sidewalk, by the time the doors opened at 7 a.m.

There wasn’t exactly a mad rush: Amazon staff members checked with customers as they moved up the line, to make sure they were ready for cashierless shopping.

Amazon operates more than a dozen Amazon Fresh grocery stores across the country, but the Bellevue store is the first one to use the shopping surveillance system that was pioneered at the company’s Amazon Go convenience stores.

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Can Amazon’s robots make work safer for humans?

Bert and Ernie, Scooter and Kermit may have started out as warm and fuzzy Muppet characters, but now they’re part of Amazon’s team of warehouse robots as well.

Amazon showed off the latest members of its mechanical menagerie today in a blog post that focuses on how it’s using robotic research to improve workplace safety for its human employees.

For example, a type of robot nicknamed Ernie is designed to take boxy product containers known as totes off shelves at different heights, and then use its robotic arm to deliver the totes to warehouse employees at a standard height. The goal is to reduce the amount of reaching up or bending down that workers have to do.

“We’re known for being passionate about innovating for customers, but being able to innovate with robotics for our employees is something that gives me an extra kick of motivation each day,” Kevin Keck, worldwide director of advanced technology at Amazon, said in the blog posting. “The innovation with a robot like Ernie is interesting because while it doesn’t make the process go any faster, we’re optimistic, based on our testing, it can make our facilities safer for employees.”

Today’s inside look at the research being done at labs in the Seattle area, the Boston area and northern Italy comes in the wake of a couple of reports criticizing Amazon’s workplace safety record.

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To the moon! Amazon boosts space startups

The first 10 companies to participate in Amazon Web Services’ accelerator program for space-centric startups are targeting territory ranging from low Earth orbit to the surface of the moon and Mars.

Today’s announcement follows up on the unveiling of the AWS Space Accelerator in March. Amazon chief technology officer Werner Vogels said the 10 ventures were selected out of more than 190 proposals from 44 countries.

“These companies from the United States and Europe cover a wide range of space capabilities with impact here on Earth today, as well as on humanity’s approach to working and living in space in the future,” he wrote in a blog posting.

Over a four-week span, the companies will be provided with hands-on technical training in machine learning, high-performance computing and other tools of the cloud computing trade. They’ll hear from mentors about business development and investment, and they’ll receive $100,000 in AWS Activate credit for cloud services.

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Cloud titans reportedly battle for Boeing’s business

Amazon, Microsoft and Google are involved in a bidding process to provide Boeing with cloud computing services, a contract that’s expected to be worth at least $1 billion over several years, The Information reports.

Today’s report is attributed to four people with knowledge of the matter. We’ve reached out to Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud as well as Boeing, but this is typically something such companies doesn’t talk about publicly during negotiations — as The Information found out. (For what it’s worth, Google Cloud sent us a “no comment” email.)

The Information says AWS considers the Boeing contract “a must-win deal.” Andy Jassy, who’s currently in charge of AWS’ cloud business and is due to take over as Amazon’s CEO on July 5, is reportedly directly involved in the process.

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New book details Jeff Bezos’ SpaceX envy

When it comes to his Blue Origin space venture, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos likes to say “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” But a new book claims Bezos was so concerned about the slow pace of progress five years ago that Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, was asked about becoming Blue Origin’s CEO.

Shotwell — who is second only to billionaire CEO Elon Musk at SpaceX — quickly rebuffed the entreaty, saying that “it wouldn’t look right,” according to tech journalist Brad Stone’s account in “Amazon Unbound.” That’s just one of the eye-openers from just one of the book’s chapters — the one that’s devoted to Blue Origin, which was founded by Bezos as a privately held company in 2000.

“Amazon Unbound” follows up on Stone’s 2013 book about Bezos and Amazon, “The Everything Store.” The earlier book touched upon Blue Origin’s genesis in Bezos’ childhood space dreams — and quoted a high-school girlfriend of his as saying Bezos founded Amazon solely to earn the money needed for his space venture.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Bezos told me jokingly in the spring of 2016.

Stone’s new book suggests that just six months after that interview, Bezos was in no joking mood. Citing interviews with people who were familiar with Blue Origin’s workings, Stone writes that Bezos called in a succession of executives during several weeks in the fall of 2016 to discuss the space venture’s progress, or lack thereof.

The book depicts Bezos as frustrated with expenses that were bigger than he expected — and results that were coming more slowly than expected. In Stone’s telling, Blue Origin’s longtime president, Rob Meyerson, was caught in the middle: charged with following through on Bezos’ emailed instructions, but resented by demoralized members of his team.

Bezos’ dissatisfaction was fueled in part by the success of SpaceX and its billionaire CEO, Elon Musk. While most of Blue Origin’s funding came directly from Bezos, SpaceX hustled to raise outside capital — including $1 billion from Google and Fidelity — and successfully snagged multibillion-dollar contracts from NASA. SpaceX was hopping ahead like the hare in Aesop’s Fables, while Blue Origin seemed to be plodding along like the tortoise. (And in fact, tortoises are part of Blue Origin’s coat of arms.)

There was a personal element to the rivalry. “Musk and Bezos were a lot alike — relentless, competitive, and absorbed with their self-images. But Musk eagerly sought the spotlight and cultivated a kind of cultlike adoration at his companies and among his fans. … Bezos, on the other hand, was more guarded,” Stone writes.

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FCC clears SpaceX to shift Starlink satellite orbits

The Federal Communications Commission has given the go-ahead for SpaceX to modify the planned orbits for future satellites in its Starlink broadband internet constellation — a move that SpaceX says will result in improved, safer operations but has faced resistance from Amazon’s Project Kuiper and other rivals.

After the FCC issued its 57-page order, Amazon said its concerns were adequately addressed by the conditions that the commission placed on its approval.

The FCC authorized SpaceX to lower the primary operational altitude for 2,814 of its satellites from an originally specified range of between 1,100 to 1,200 kilometers (684 to 746 miles) to a range between 540 and 570 kilometers (336 to 354 miles). That’s in addition to 1,584 satellites previously cleared for the lower set of orbits.

SpaceX already has more than 1,300 satellites in low Earth orbit, and it’s in the process of expanding its beta testing program for Starlink’s satellite internet service. Sixty more satellites are due to be launched as early as Wednesday.

Eventually, SpaceX aims to offer global broadband access through a network that makes use of thousands more satellites. Those satellites are built at SpaceX’s growing facility in Redmond, Wash.

SpaceX says that the revised orbits should improve response times for the network — and that the lower orbits should make it easier to dispose of satellites once they’ve outlived their usefulness, by commanding them to take a fiery plunge through the atmosphere.

However, the newly authorized orbits come close to the 590- to 630-kilometer (367- to 391-mile) orbits that have been targeted for future satellites in Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation, which also aims to provide global broadband internet access.

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Amazon makes its first satellite launch deal

United Launch Alliance says it’s struck a deal for a series of nine launches of its Atlas V rocket to send satellites into low Earth orbit for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation.

Amazon emphasized that this is just the first wave for a 3,236-satellite network that’s designed to offer broadband access to billions of people.

“We’re determined to make affordable broadband a reality for customers and communities around the world,” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said today in a news release. “ULA is a fantastic partner that’s successfully launched dozens of missions for commercial and government customers, and we’re grateful for their support of Kuiper.”

Neither ULA nor Amazon announced a schedule for the launches, but under the terms of Amazon’s license from the Federal Communications Commission, half of the satellites have to be deployed by mid-2026.

Bezos is also the founder of the Blue Origin space venture, which is working on an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn. That rocket isn’t expected to go into service until late 2022.

In contrast, the Atlas V has successfully executed more than 80 launches since 2002. Rajeev Badyal, Amazon’s vice president of technology for Project Kuiper, touted the Atlas V’s reputation as a “capable, reliable rocket.”

Badyal didn’t rule out selecting Blue Origin for a later round of launches. “We’ve designed our satellites and dispenser system to accommodate multiple launch vehicles — this gives us the flexibility to use many different rockets and providers to launch our satellite system,” he said.

Because Bezos is the sole owner of privately held Blue Origin, publicly held Amazon has to navigate a careful path as it selects launch providers for Project Kuiper. Decisions that appear to favor Blue Origin could spark questions about self-dealing.

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Amazon launches accelerator for space startups

Amazon Web Services is raising the curtain on AWS Space Accelerator, a four-week business support program that’s open to space startups seeking to use Amazon’s cloud computing services.

AWS and Seraphim, a London-based investment group focusing on the space industry, will select 10 companies to participate in the accelerator program during the month of June. Applications are being accepted starting today, and proposals are due by April 21.

“Startups provide a catalyst for bold new experimentation in the space industry,” Clint Crosier, director of AWS’ aerospace and satellite solutions, said in a blog posting. “We are proud to announce the AWS Space Accelerator as part of our ongoing commitment to help startups succeed, and to shape the future of aerospace.”

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Amazon stays out of ‘Kraken’ satellite mystery

An unnamed space company may have picked up a code name with Seattle connotations during negotiations for a satellite factory in Florida, but that doesn’t mean it’s associated with Amazon.

Amazon says its Project Kuiper broadband satellite mega-constellation isn’t “Project Kraken,” the mystery company that’s negotiating a business development deal with Space Florida.

Project Kraken’s existence came to light on March 17 during a meeting of Space Florida’s board of directors. Florida Politics reports that the code-named company is looking at Space Florida’s properties in the Cape Canaveral area as a potential site for a $300 million satellite factory that could create 2,000 jobs in Brevard County.

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Critics take aim at broadband satellite constellations

SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb say their satellite mega-constellations will make broadband internet goodness available to billions of people around the world who are unserved or underserved — but some say those promises have to be weighed against the potential perils.

These critics cite the risk of catastrophic satellite collisions, concerns about cybersecurity and worries about environmental and health impacts  — including impacts on astronomical observations and the beauties of the night sky.

Such concerns are likely to intensify as SpaceX and OneWeb add to their current fleets of satellites in low Earth orbit, and as Amazon gets set to deploy more than 3,200 satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband network. If all the plans laid out for those ventures come to pass, tens of thousands of satellites could be put into orbit over the next decade.

Early today, SpaceX sent its latest batch of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit, bringing the total number of satellites launched to 1,265.

The latest challenge to the mega-constellations was filed today with the Federal Communications Commission. A coalition of policy groups is calling on the FCC to put a 180-day hold on further approvals for broadband data satellite deployments, in order to conduct a more thoroughgoing assessment of the risks.