Amazon has unveiled its latest warehouse robot. It says "Sparrow is the first robotic system in our warehouses that can detect, select, and handle individual products in our inventory." The robotic arm uses AI and computer vision to recognize and handle millions of items, according to Amazon.
The company says that, by employing robots in its warehouses, it can conduct operations more efficiently and safely. "Sparrow will take on repetitive tasks, enabling our employees to focus their time and energy on other things, while also advancing safety," Amazon said. "At the same time, Sparrow will help us drive efficiency by automating a critical part of our fulfillment process so we can continue to deliver for customers." It added that, by employing robots, it has been able to create more than 700 new job categories.
Amazon doesn't exactly have a spotless record when it comes to conditions for warehouse workers, particularly when robots are involved. In 2020, the Center for Investigative Reporting's Reveal publication released a report indicating that, between 2016 and 2019, the rate of serious injuries sustained by Amazon employees at automated warehouses was 50 percent higher than at facilities that don't use robots.
According to the report, the use of robots led Amazon to increase workers' quotas, requiring them to scan as many as 400 items per hour when they previously had to scan 100. "The data back up the accounts of Amazon warehouse workers and former safety professionals who say the company has used the robots to ratchet up production quotas to the point that humans can’t keep up without hurting themselves," the report reads.
This past July, it emerged that the US government was looking into Amazon over alleged unsafe workplace conditions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration carried out inspections that were "related, among other things, to Amazon's required pace of work for its warehouse employees."
Amazon revealed Sparrow amid a drive by warehouse workers to unionize their workplaces, where robots are taking over duties in some cases. In March, workers at the JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island voted to unionize, becoming the first Amazon warehouse to do so. The company has challenged the result of the election. More recently, workers at an Albany, New York warehouse voted against unionization after Amazon conducted an anti-union campaign.