Amazon applies artificial intelligence to worker safety

Amazon is testing a variety of robotic and smart technology solutions designed to create a safer workplace.

At its Amazon Robotics and Advanced Technology labs located near Seattle, in Boston, and in Northern Italy, the e-tail giant is working on new technologies to help move totes, carts, and packages through its facilities. In the Seattle-area research and innovation lab, one project in early development involves the use of motion-capture technology to assess the movement of volunteer employees in a lab setting. These employees perform tasks that are common in many Amazon facilities, such as the movement of totes, which carry products through robotic fulfillment centers.

Motion-capture software enables Amazon scientists and researchers to more accurately compare data captured in a lab environment to industry standards, rather than other traditional ergonomic modeling tools.

In another example, many Amazon fulfillment center employees currently pick or stow items onto mobile shelves as products move through the process of fulfilling customer orders. To potentially reduce the need for employees to reach up or bend down when retrieving items, limiting more strenuous movements, Amazon is testing a new workstation system called “Ernie.” Ernie takes totes off of a robotic shelf and uses a robotic arm to deliver it to employees, so they can remain in a more comfortable, stable, and ergonomic position.

Robotics and Advanced Technology team members are gathering quantitative data on the performance of Ernie from the research and innovation lab and one other Amazon facility where Ernie is being tested. They are also getting anecdotal feedback from employees testing the new equipment.

In the same research and innovation lab, three different types of autonomous robots are also going through varying phases of testing and development. “Bert” is one of Amazon’s first autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs, which no longer need to be confined to restricted areas. This means that in the future, an employee could summon Bert to carry items across a facility. In addition, Bert might at some point be able to move larger, heavier items or carts that are used to transport multiple packages through Amazon’s facilities, helping lessen strain on employees.

Two other robots, with the code names “Scooter” and “Kermit,” also operate autonomously, but unlike Bert, both transport carts. Amazon currently plans to deploy Scooter to at least one facility this year. Kermit is focused on moving empty totes from one location to another within facilities so Amazon can get empty totes back to the starting line. Kermit follows strategically placed magnetic tape to guide its navigation and uses tags placed along the way to determine if it should speed up, slow down, or modify its course in some way. 

Kermit is further along in development, currently being tested in several sites across the U.S., and will be introduced in at least a dozen more sites across North America this year.

According to Amazon, these automation development efforts are part of WorkingWell, a program launched in May 2021 to reduce workplace injuries at Amazon 50% by 2025. The company also recently partnered with the National Safety Council to invent new ways to prevent common musculoskeletal injuries, such as sprains and strains

“With this data, visualizations, and employee feedback, we are looking to identify relatively simple changes that can make a big impact,” said Kevin Keck, worldwide director of advanced technology at Amazon, in a corporate blog post. “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.”

Since Amazon began using robotics in its facilities in 2012, the company says it has added more than 1 million jobs worldwide while simultaneously deploying 350,000 mobile drive unit robots.

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