Amazon hopes more robots will improve worker safety

But is more technology enough to improve working conditions?

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Amazon 'Scooter' robot
Amazon

Amazon is once again betting that robots will improve safety at its warehouses. The online shopping giant has offered looks at several upcoming bots and other technologies meant to reduce strain on workers. The company is testing a trio of autonomous robots to carry items with little intervention. "Bert" can freely move around a warehouse carrying carts and goods. "Scooter" (above) carries carts like a train, while the more truck-like "Kermit" hauls empty tote boxes using magnetic tape and tags to shape its path.

The company expects to use Scooter in "at least one" facility by the end of 2021, and is already testing Kermit in several other sites. with plans for over a dozen expansions in North America this year. There's no mention of when Bert might be ready.

Other advancements are more about making human tasks more comfortable. The "Ernie" prototype robot uses its arm to grab items off robotic shelves so that workers don't have to stretch upwards or bend down. Amazon is also using motion capture software to study typical warehouse tasks with a mind toward redesigning equipment and workflows. It could change the positions of handles on totes, for example.

Amazon hopes these projects and other efforts will help it reach a goal of cutting warehouse "recordable incidents" in half by 2025.

The efforts could help reduce injuries, but they also reinforce complaints that Amazon is relying more on tech to improve working conditions than meaningful policy changes. New York state accused Amazon of not only disregarding COVID-19 safety, for example, but of retaliating against workers who raised concerns. Jeff Bezos has also defended policies that potentially contribute to injuries, such as real-world limitations on time spent away from work tasks. Amazon isn't leaning solely on tech to solve problems (it's investing $300 million in workplace safety projects this year), but critics might not be satisfied with the balance the company is striking so far.

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