Deploying more than 100,000 robots across Amazon warehouses poses a unique challenge to workplace safety: how does the online retailer keep humans safe as they operate alongside smart machines?
In 2018, Amazon began introducing workers to a new electronic utility belt designed to communicate with other robots – and, ultimately, keep humans out of danger.
Dubbed the Robotic Tech Vest (RTV), the utility belt is connected to a pair of suspenders and outfitted with sensors that tell other machines to slow down or change course as the wearer approaches.
“What the vest allows the robots to do is detect the human from farther away and smartly update its travel plan to steer clear without the need for the associate to explicitly mark out those zones,” Brad Porter, vice president of Amazon Robotics, told TechCrunch.
Robots typically have a designated place inside the warehouse, cordoned off to prevent them from crossing paths with humans unnecessarily. When a robot drops an item or bogs down, however, a human would have to enter the space to intervene.
An employee wearing an RTV automatically signals their presence to the machine. The wearable tech thus increases system visibility.
“In the past, associates would mark out the grid of cells where they would be working in order to enable the robotic traffic planner to smartly route around that region,” Porter said.
The idea of installing sensors for robots to “see” each other on the factory floor has gained momentum in the past few years with the advent of “cobots” or collaborative robots.
But, unlike the RTV which has to be worn by humans, cobots automatically map out the space where they operate without the need for additional gizmos to be strapped onto a human. The cobots adjust their movement and behaviour accordingly once they sense a human is entering their space.