Amazon details how its warehouse robots are designed to help humans work more safely

An Amazon video shows a robot nicknamed Bert carrying items across a warehouse. (Amazon via YouTube)

Bert and Ernie, Scooter and Kermit may have started out as warm and fuzzy Muppet characters, but now theyre part of Amazons 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 its 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.

Were 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 doesnt make the process go any faster, were optimistic, based on our testing, it can make our facilities safer for employees.

Todays 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 Amazons workplace safety record.

One study, published by a coalition of labor unions, said the rate of serious injuries among Amazons warehouse workers was nearly 80% higher than the equivalent rates at non-Amazon warehouses. Similar findings were reported by The Washington Post, based on an analysis of records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (The Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.)

In his latest annual letter to shareholders, Bezos acknowledged that Amazon needs to do a better job for our employees and said that more than $300 million will be invested in workplace safety projects this year. We are going to be Earths Best Employer and Earths Safest Place to Work, he vowed.

A significant part of that investment involves research, development and training. At the Seattle research and innovation lab, Amazons team is using motion-capture technology to assess the movement of volunteer employees in a lab setting. The studies could point to new strategies for reducing stress injuries.

We are looking to identify relatively simple changes that can make a big impact, Keck explained. Something as simple as changing the position of handles on totes may help lower the risk of injuries to our employees at a massive scale.

It would be impossible to discuss Amazons warehouse operations without mentioning Amazons robots: In todays posting, the company says about 350,000 mobile drive unit robots currently work alongside the hundreds of thousands of humans employed at its fulfillment centers around the globe. That robotic headcount is 75% higher than the estimate that Amazon shared two years ago.

The role robotics and advanced technology can play in not only innovating for customers, but helping make our facilities safer, is a massive motivation for me and my team, Keck said.

On Sesame Street, Ernies closest friend is a tall Muppet named Bert and theres a robotic Bert to go with Ernie on Amazons warehouse floor as well.

Bert is being tested as one of Amazons first autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs. Its designed to find its way safely through the companys facilities on its own.

In the future, a worker could summon a robot like Bert to carry heavy loads from one end of the warehouse to the other, cutting down on human wear-and-tear.

Other robots are designed to transport the standardized carts that carry packages and empty totes through Amazons facilities. A robot nicknamed Scooter, in honor of the nerdy backstage manager on The Muppet Show, is being tested to pull carts through Amazons fulfillment centers autonomously.

Amazon says it plans to deploy Scooter to at least one of its facilities this year.

Yet another breed of autonomously guided cart is nicknamed Kermit. The robot, named after the frog whos the star of The Muppet Show, is specifically designed to move empty totes from locations in Amazons warehouse back to the starting line.

Kermit follows strategically placed magnetic tape to guide its location, and uses tags placed along the way to determine whether it should speed up, slow down or modify its course. When Kermit is on the move along its preordained track, it flashes an array of signal lights in a light shade of froggy green.

Amazon says the robotic Kermits are being tested in several sites across the U.S., and will be introduced in at least a dozen more sites in North America this year.

In todays posting, Amazon acknowledged some people are worried that the rise of the robots will have a potentially negative impact on jobs.

One study suggests that automation could displace as many as 375 million workers worldwide by 2030. But others claim that robotic systems could improve the workplace experience, or fill logistical gaps created by supply-chain disruptions like the coronavirus pandemic.

In todays blog posting, Amazon notes that human employment has risen much faster than its robotic headcount over the past nine years, reaching a total of nearly 1.3 million people worldwide.

To help its own employees get in on the robotic revolution, Amazon has rolled out a $700 million training initiative called Upskilling 2025 and a robotics apprenticeship program. Back in 2016, Amazon employee Andre Grass took advantage of an on-the-job training program known as A2Tech to switch from a job readying customer orders to a role as an IT technician at a fulfillment center in Phoenix.

It was probably one of the biggest deals that happened in my life, knowing that Amazon would put even more effort into developing me, Grass said in a company profile. I just needed somebody to give me a chance.

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