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The Amazon robots are here, and they don’t even have to be kept in cages anymore

June 22, 2022, 5:01 PM UTC

Amazon unveiled its first fully autonomous mobile robot this week, and it could soon join human workers on the company’s warehouse floors. 

Unlike previous models, the latest robot, called Proteus, can operate alongside humans and will not be kept in caged-off areas, according to a company announcement Tuesday. The robot will navigate around groups of people while lifting and moving Amazon’s GoCarts, wheeled trolleys that carry packages through facilities. 

“Historically, it’s been difficult to safely incorporate robotics in the same physical space as people,” Amazon wrote. “We believe Proteus will change that while remaining smart, safe, and collaborative.”

Amazon said Proteus uses the company’s own advanced safety, perception, and navigation technology to avoid bumping into human workers. In a video the company released showcasing the robot, Proteus emits a green beam as it travels. Once a person steps into the range of that beam, the robot waits until they have moved before continuing on its path. 

Initially, Proteus will work in the GoCart handling areas of Amazon’s fulfillment and sort centers, though the company did not say when deployment of the robots would start.

Amazon did not immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comment.

“Our vision is to automate GoCart handling throughout the network, which will help reduce the need for people to manually move heavy objects through our facility and instead let them focus on more rewarding work,” the company said.  

Amazon also revealed several other new machines that it has developed over the past decade since it acquired robotics company Kiva Systems in 2012.

One of those machines is Cardinal, a robotic arm that lifts packages of up to 50 pounds out of a pile and reads the label to know what GoCart to place it in. Amazon is still testing a prototype of the technology but said it expects to place it in fulfillment centers next year. 

“The movement of heavy packages, as well as the reduction of twisting and turning motions by employees, are areas we continually look to automate to help reduce risk of injury,” the announcement said. “Cardinal reduces the risk of employee injuries by handling tasks that require lifting and turning of large or heavy packages or complicated packing in a confined space.”

Amazon says that its new machines are aimed at reducing the risk of injury for human workers, but a 2020 report from Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting casts doubt on the claim that automation will create a safer workplace. The report found that though injuries at Amazon are already twice as common as the industry standard, “the rate of serious injuries from 2016 to 2019 was more than 50% higher at warehouses with robots than ones without.” That’s because the presence of hyperefficient robots pushed employees to work faster, sometimes to the point of injury, per the report. 

Amazon’s big reveal of its new tech comes days after an internal memo leaked to Recode, predicting a human labor gap for the online retailer. Based on internal research from mid-2021, Amazon expects to run out of people to hire in its U.S. warehouses by 2024. A New York Times investigation showed last year that ​​Amazon’s turnover rate is roughly 150% a year, or close to double the average in the retail and logistics industries. 

In addition to raising wages to retain its current workforce and attract more applicants, the memo suggested the company increase automation in its warehouses to address its looming labor crisis. 

Amazon pushed back against concerns that it plans to replace its human workforce with robots in Tuesday’s announcement. 

“From the early days of the Kiva acquisition, our vision was never tied to a binary decision of people or technology. Instead, it was about people and technology working safely and harmoniously together to deliver for our customers. That vision remains today,” the company said. 

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