Watching orange robots, known as drive units, navigate their way across an Amazon warehouse can be mesmerizing. On the other hand, when those same robots need help, moving them around by hand can be tricky.

“Sometimes the small things have the biggest impact,” said Tim Macfarlane, an Amazon project manager who works with some of the company’s latest robotic technology.

Series of images showing schematic drawing of invention, a photo of the invention in use, and an composite of the schematic blended with the photo.

Macfarlane, who likes to say he’s “taking his robot for a walk” while pushing a robotic drive unit across an Amazon fulfillment center, is a person who revels in facing challenges and coming up with creative workarounds. The robots are little more than ankle high, and Macfarlane had an "aha" moment the first time he saw technicians bent over at the waist while pushing a drive unit that temporarily couldn't drive itself.

“I mocked up a quick apparatus to move it around, a handle, which we ended up calling the drive pusher,” said Macfarlane. “I scrapped it together with bits and pieces we had around the shop and developed this handle.”

There’s a lot more to it than just a few simple “bits and pieces.” With Amazon’s help, Macfarlane was able to obtain a patent for that first prototype of a robo-mover. It’s now professionally manufactured and used in dozens of Amazon fulfillment centers.

Portrait of man with airplane in background. The man has a goatee and wears a polo shirt and a jacket.
Air Force veteran Tim Macfarlane served two tours in the Middle East.
Two men face each other while standing in front of a yellow railing.
Macfarlane talks with Casey Thigpen, who hired him for his first role at Amazon.
Schematic drawing of a person pushing a handle secured to a device.
A diagram from the U.S. patent for a handle that Macfarlane invented to transport robots around Amazon fulfillment centers.
A man in a safety vest assembles a metal device.
Macfarlane assembles his creation.
Two men in a warehouse space reach down to secure a silver-colored object to an orange, wheeled piece of machinery.
Macfarlane and a fellow Amazonian attach his invention to a robotic drive unit.
A man is photographed from the legs down. A metal frame on wheels in directly in front of him.
Macfarlane's invention seen without a robot.
A blue blazer with military insignia.
Macfarlane's Air Force dress uniform.

“I think that all ties back to being a part of the Air Force and being able to think on your feet, and think past the problem,” said Casey Thigpen, who was Macfarlane’s first manager at Amazon.

Macfarlane served two tours in the Middle East during his U.S. Air Force service, where he worked in avionics with communication and navigation systems. Since transitioning from military service to Amazon seven years ago, the 33-year-old has developed into an innovator and leader.

“I definitely had a sense of pride serving. It's all just about doing the right thing for your country, doing the right thing for yourself, doing the right thing for the folks around you,” he said. “Some of those same things carry into Amazon. It's about being part of a bigger thing.”

Macfarlane relishes the camaraderie he has at Amazon, which mirrors some of the best parts of his years in the Air Force. But most of all, he says he loves being in a place where anyone with a good idea can have an impact.

“With Amazon, anyone from the ground floor to the highest echelons can come up with a design or an idea and run with it, and they'll support you fully.”