Amazon Patents Tiny Cage For Warehouse Operators

Amazon has received a patent that would combine man and machine in a symbiotic, product-fetching cage enclosure capable of flying around their expansive warehouses on tracks currently used by robotic trolleys

The Seattle Times reports that the patent, granted by the US Patent and Trademark office in 2016, depict a cage-like enclosure surrounding a small office space, and was described by researchers last Friday as "an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines." 

Amazon in 2016 was granted a patent for a system to transport humans, enclosed in a cage and on top of a robotic trolley, for work in areas full of other automated robots. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

That said, Amazon says they never implemented the cage system and has no plans to do so, however the design looks to be an effort to allow human workers to safely integrate with dangerous robot-only zones in the Seattle company's highly-automated warehouses. 

In an Amazon facility in Kent, for example, 750-pound robots topped with shelves scoot around an area surrounded by high chain-link fences, bringing merchandise like iPhone cases and coffee mugs to waiting employees who place or retrieve items from windows built into the fence.

If an unauthorized human strays into the robot-only zone, the company says, an alarm is triggered and the devices are designed to shut down to avoid colliding with the person. Amazon, in its patent, suggested a way around that firm boundary between human and robot territory. -Seattle Times

"There may be circumstances where it is necessary for human operators to traverse, or otherwise go into, an active work space," reads the patent. 

Instead of the cage, Amazon uses a "small vest associates can wear that cause all robotic drive units in their proximity to stop moving." 

The cage is just one example included in a comprehensive case study of various systems which integrate to make up Amazon's Echo ecosystem. Published Friday by Kate Crawford - co-founder of the AI Now Institute at NYU and a Microsoft researcher, and Vladen Joler, a professor in the new media department at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia, the patent is described as follows: 

It depicts a metal cage intended for the worker, equipped with different cybernetic add-ons, that can be moved through a warehouse by the same motorized system that shifts shelves filled with merchandise,” they write. “Here, the worker becomes a part of a machinic ballet, held upright in a cage which dictates and constrains their movement.”

Amazon suggests in the patent application using what it calls a "human transport device" to bring the workers near the robots for things such as repair work or the removal of a malfunctioning trolley. They could similarly be used to traverse off-limits workspaces to reach a restroom. 

No need now - however, as employees can simply don their vests of invincibility and saunter over to the restroom as the warehouse robots bow to their master.