Amazon hired fewer seasonal workers in 2018 than for the two preceding years, suggesting the company is succeeding in its efforts to automate its operations.
But its warehouse-based robots aren’t yet skillful enough to allow the company to completely do away with human workers, meaning that for a while yet, fleshy beings will be working alongside mechanical helpers to fulfill orders from millions of online shoppers.
With Amazon’s fulfillment centers a constant hive of activity, ensuring staff safety is of the utmost importance. That’s why the company has started equipping its human workers with so-called “tech vests” designed to prevent its robots from getting too close for comfort.
The protective clothing is “like a pair of suspenders attached to an electronic utility belt,” according to TechCrunch, and offers another layer of safety alongside the robots’ on-board sensors that scan for obstacles.
Amazon’s fulfillment centers use dozens of robotic wheel-based “drive units” that move containers of ordered items to human pickers. When a worker enters the its space, the robot receives an alert from the tech vest to confirm that a human is close by. The robot will then slow its speed and, if necessary, alter its route to reduce the chances of a collision.
Before Amazon introduced the tech vest, an employee would have to mark out a space in advance to let the drive units know where they would be working, whether performing maintenance, picking up a dropped item, or carrying out some other task.
It appears that the tech vest is able to signal a human’s presence from a greater distance than the robot’s sensor technology can currently handle by itself, giving the robot extra time to reroute, if necessary.
In scenarios where humans work alongside moving robots, most accidents take place during actions that are outside of the usual routine, making the tech vest an important addition to the kit of Amazon’s workforce. Indeed, the company said that since its deployment last year, vest alerts have been issued to nearby robots more than a million times.
Amazon made its first major step toward robot helpers as far back as 2012 when it acquired warehouse automation solution company Kiva for $ 775 million.
Fancy taking a look inside one of Amazon’s increasingly high-tech fulfillment centers? Digital Trends visited one in 2018 to see items bought and boxed in a matter of minutes.