Amazon Develops New Robots to Help Improve Employee Safety

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Scooter pulls carts through an Amazon fulfillment center (Photo via Amazon/YouTube)

Amazon’s commitment to employee safety continues with a slew of new technologies designed to help move items and better protect humans.

Among the innovations currently being tested is a project that uses motion-capture technology to assess people’s movement; volunteers perform common tasks—moving totes, carts, or packages—while the software captures data for later study.

“With this data, visualizations, and employee feedback, we are looking to identify relatively simple changes that can make a big impact,” Kevin Keck, worldwide director of advanced technology at Amazon, said in a statement. “Something as simple as changing the position of handles on totes [which carry products through robotic fulfillment centers],” he explained, “may help lower the risk of injuries to our employees at a massive scale.”

Much of an Amazon worker’s job consists of picking up and putting down items to fulfill customer orders, but such strenuous motions can take a toll on a person’s body. Enter workstation system Ernie, designed to remove totes from shelves and, using its robotic arm, deliver them to staff, who can remain in “a more comfortable, stable, and ergonomically friendly position,” according to Amazon.

“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,” Keck said. “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.”

Ernie’s not alone at the research and innovation lab, though. Three “very different types” of autonomous robots are currently undergoing various phases of testing and development.

Bert, one of Amazon’s first Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), is being assessed for its autonomous navigation, in hopes of humans and robots one day working together in the same physical space. Two more bots—Scooter and Kermit—are what’s known as Autonomously Guided Carts (AGCs), built to perform physical tasks like carrying empty totes and packages through facilities, enabling folks to focus on jobs that require critical thinking skills.

“Using an AGC like Scooter to pull carts through our facilities reduces the risk of strains on our employees, or even collisions,” Amazon said, teasing plans to deploy Scooter to “at least one” facility this year. Kermit, meanwhile, follows magnetic tape and strategically placed tags to determine if it should speed up, slow down, or modify its course. Further along in development, Kermit is currently being tested in several sites across the US, and will be introduced in at least 12 more North American locations in 2021.

For some, robots in the workplace signals the beginning of the end for jobs. For Amazon, they mean more global positions, new learning opportunities, and a safer work environment. “The health and safety of our employees is our No. 1 priority,” Keck said. “I’m confident [these innovations will] make a big contribution to our goal of reducing recordable incidents by 50% by 2025.”

The firm last month launched the WorkingWell program to prevent injuries, provide wellness services, and offer healthcare to employees. A three-pronged approach combines education and exercises, health and wellness services, and technology to train and condition employees.

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