Amazon has faced lots of public scrutiny and backlash for the dangerous working conditions in its warehouses. And rightfully so. Amazon warehouses seem like bad places to work. As a consequence, there’ve been hints that the company is struggling to find enough people to fill all the warehouse jobs.
So, it’s no surprise that Amazon is continuing to explore the logical alternative to unionizing humans and their pesky needs: robots.
On Tuesday, the company announced their “first fully autonomous mobile robot,” dubbed “Proteus.” The Roomba-on-steroids looking machine can independently navigate around a warehouse floor, pick up heavy objects, and move them to a new place, according to the company.
Amazon said it plans to incorporate Proteus into the “outbound GoCart handling areas in our fulfillment centers and sort centers.” Notably, unlike previous Amazon robots, Proteus won’t be separated from human workers by a cage or barrier. The company instead plans to deploy the robot directly alongside and amid people. In Amazon’s press video, Proteus appears to stop moving when a person walks in front of it’s green-glowing “line of sight.” So hopefully, human/robot collisions doesn’t get added to the list of warehouse risks.
In addition to Proteus, the company also simultaneously introduced three other new robotic features that are set to enter warehouses in the future. There’s “Cardinal,” the robotic arm that can lift and sort packages up to 50 pounds using “advanced artificial intelligence” and “computer vision.” Amazon said it is currently testing a prototype of Cardinal, and that they are hoping to deploy the lifting and twisting box grabber to warehouses in 2023.
Then there’s a new scanning system that the company claims would reduce the need for manual barcode scanners and allow for employees to scan a package simply by placing it on a shelf. The system, called “Amazon Robotics Identification” has a similar vibe to the company’s Just Walk Out technology, which keeps close tabs on a retail customer’s movements through cameras and sensors and automatically charges for purchases accordingly.
Finally, there’s the “Containerized Storage System,” which appears to use robotic cranes, moving pedestals, and labeled bins to catalog, store, and retrieve items within stacks of shelf “pods.” “The system helps determine which pod has the container with the needed product, where that container is located in the pod, how to grab and pull the container to the employee,” Amazon wrote. The company didn’t specify a due date for either the new scanning or container management systems, and Amazon declined to provide Gizmodo with more detail on the timing of the robotic roll-out.
As Amazon framed it in their company blogpost, all of these robotic innovations are meant to improve the human experience of being a warehouse worker. The company referenced the “ergonomic” nature of their designs repeatedly, and wrote that they “continually look to automate to help reduce risk of injury.”
Those things may be true, but it’s also clear that these robots are meant to boost efficiency—to shave milliseconds off of the process of scanning a package and sending it down the shipping line without ever experiencing fatigue. “With Cardinal, package sorting happens earlier in the shipping process, resulting in faster process time in the facility. Amazon shipping operations run more smoothly because Cardinal converts batch-based manual work into continuous, automated work,” wrote Amazon.
High quotas and a hyper-focus on speed are besides what has made Amazon warehouses such dangerous places to work. So, will these robots allow human workers to breathe a sigh of relief, or will they add to the existing pressure to speed up? Will the robots allow Amazon to meet company goals with fewer casualties or will they be a justification for Amazon to demand even more from people even faster?