Amazon warehouse workers are getting utility belts that ward off robots

The robots register signals given off by the belts and navigate around the wearer
Amazon has more than 100,000 robots in its warehouses, and so, naturally, needs to ensure that the machines play nice with human employees. The company’s latest solution to keep robo-human relations ticking over smoothly is what it calls the “Robotic Tech Vest” — a bit of kit that warehouse workers can wear to make them visible to nearby machines.

As reported by TechCrunch, the Robotic Tech Vest (really more of a belt-and-suspenders combo, judging by the picture above) is a neat upgrade to existing safety systems.

Usually, Amazon’s robots tote shelves of goods around in a cordoned-off area where they can’t run into employees. If a robot breaks down or drops any items a human has to enter that area to put things right. “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,” Amazon’s VP of robotics, Brad Porter, told TechCrunch. “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.”

Amazon Opens Fulfillment Center In DuPont, Washington Amazon’s robots are mostly porter bots, which carry shelves of goods around warehouses. Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The Robotic Tech Vest (or RTV) is basically the equivalent of high-vis jacket then: it makes the wearer more visible. Presumably, the new system is also more flexible than previous safety measures. Employees can wander into the robot enclosure whenever they need rather than having to mark out a safe zone beforehand. Amazon says the RTV has been introduced to more than 25 sites over the past year, and claims it’s been a “huge success.”

Interestingly, though, Amazon’s introduction of the RTV runs counter to what some experts thought the future of industrial robots would be. For many years, companies have been developing so-called cobots or “colloborative robots” — machines with built-in cameras that detect nearby humans and adjust their movements accordingly, no RTVs needed.

What Amazon’s deployment of this bit of kit suggests is that developing cobots is not necessarily the most cost-efficient approach to automation. Instead, it seems to be easier to let robots have their own working space where humans just don’t usually venture. In other words: the warehouse of the future is being built around the needs of robots, not humans.