Amazon warehouse employees may soon get a couple of new co-workers: Ernie and Bert.
Those are the names of some of the new robots Amazon is testing to move carts, packages, and other items across its fulfillment centres. The goal is to make its employees’ jobs safer, part of an initiative Amazon launched in May to reduce recordable incident rates by 50% by 2025.
It’s testing out four new robots in total, Amazon said in a blog post Sunday. And before you ask: Yes, they all have cutesy names. Ostensibly to distract from the well-documented horrifying work conditions they’ve been designed to alleviate.
There’s Ernie, a workstation system that retrieves items from the warehouse’s mobile shelves so employees don’t have to reach up or bend down themselves. As part of testing, Amazon is gathering data on Ernie’s performance from its research and innovation lab along with anecdotal feedback from employees at another facility where it’s being tested.
“The innovation with a robot like Ernie is interesting because while it doesn’t make the process go any faster, we’re optimistic, based on our testing, it can make our facilities safer for employees,” said Amazon’s worldwide director of advanced technology Kevin Keck in the blog post.
Bert is one of the company’s first autonomous mobile robots designed to cruise through facilities by itself using Amazon’s proprietary safety, perception, and navigation tech. Since it can move independently, workers could ask it to ferry items across the warehouse floor. Amazon said Bert could eventually be able to move larger, heavier items to “help lessen strain on employees.”
Scooter, pictured in the header image above, and Kermit are two other AI-powered robots that Amazon has in development specifically made for transporting carts. These types of robots, known as autonomously guided carts, could take over workers’ tasks of moving empty package containers across fulfillment centres, potentially reducing the risk of employee strain and collisions. It would also free up time for employees to “focus on jobs that require their critical thinking skills,” according to Amazon. (By that, I assume it means freshening up their resumes to find work elsewhere).
Amazon said it plans to deploy Scooter to at least one of its facilities this year. Kermit, which reads strips of magnetic tape and tags on the ground to determine its course and speed, is further along in development, Amazon said. It’s currently being tested at several U.S. sites and will be introduced to at least a dozen more across North America this year.
“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. “The health and safety of our employees is our number one priority. By listening to them, innovating on their behalf, and driving new technologies into our facilities over the coming months and years, I’m confident we’ll make a big contribution to our goal of reducing recordable incidents by 50% by 2025.”
As part of that goal, Amazon pledged in May to invest more than $US300 ($385) million into safety products this year. Its notoriously overworked warehouse staff routinely faces exhausting 10-hour “megacycle” shifts and workloads so gruelling that employees often don’t have time to use the bathroom. One investigation found that Amazon recorded 14,000 serious injuries at its warehouses in 2019, roughly 7.7 serious injuries per 100 employees, which is nearly double the most recent industry standard.
At least these robots seem like a more sound idea than Amazon’s last attempt at improving working conditions: ZenBooths, or despair closets as they were quickly ridiculed by the internet. The idea was employees could go to these coffin-sized boxes to meditate and stare at a facsimile of the bright blue sky. You know, just in case they forget what that looks like during those megacycle shifts. Sound dystopian enough for you?