Amazon is rolling out cameras that can detect if warehouse workers are following social distancing rules

Key Points
  • Amazon is launching cameras and software at its warehouses that can detect whether an employee has violated social distancing rules. 
  • As workers walk past the camera, a monitor with graphics overlaid on the screen will flash red if they're within six feet of another employee. 
  • Amazon plans to bring the technology to hundreds of facilities within weeks. 
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Amazon is rolling out cameras in its warehouses that issue an alert when workers aren't properly following social distancing guidelines, the company announced Tuesday.

The camera systems, which Amazon refers to as "Distance Assistants," provide employees with real-time feedback on social distancing as they walk through a warehouse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises keeping six feet away from another person when possible.

A camera is hooked up to a 50-inch monitor and a local computing device, which is equipped with software developed by Amazon. The software uses machine learning models to differentiate humans from their surroundings, as well as depth sensors to measure the approximate distance between workers. 

As employees walk past the camera, circles overlaid on the monitor indicate whether they're maintaining proper distancing. If an employee is following the rules, the circle appears green and if they're too close to another person, the circle flashes red. It's unclear if Amazon will take further action once an employee is flagged as violating distancing rules. 

The camera systems are meant to be placed in high-traffic areas, such as walkways on warehouse floors, as well as entrances and exits to facilities. Amazon is also making the software open source, so that other companies can use the technology in their facilities. 

So far, the technology has been implemented at a "handful" of warehouses, but Amazon expects to roll it out to hundreds of facilities within weeks, said Brad Porter, a distinguished engineer and vice president of Amazon Robotics, in a blog post. 

"We've heard that employees find value in getting immediate visual feedback, and site leaders are welcoming another safety measure," Porter said. "Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our employees and we'll continue to innovate to keep them as safe as possible."

Employees at an Amazon facility in Kent, Washington walk past one of the AI cameras.

Employers are rushing to innovate new safety solutions for workers as more and more cities and businesses begin to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many companies, including Amazon, have instituted a number of measures to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, including temperature checks, mandatory masks, testing and contact tracing. 

Companies have utilized floor markers in high-traffic areas as a means of advising people on how to maintain a safe distance. With more people returning to work, a growing number of retailers and cities are looking to AI cameras as a more reliable and comprehensive tool to track social distancing. 

Amazon previously said it was relying on its "top machine learning technologists" to detect areas where it can improve social distancing in its facilities by relying on internal camera systems. The company issued warnings to any workers caught violating the rules and said it could fire workers who were caught a second time.

Amazon's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been criticized by warehouse workers, politicians and state attorneys general. They argue Amazon moved too slowly in its efforts to provide personal protective equipment, temperature checks and other tools to keep employees safe. The company and its CEO Jeff Bezos have pushed back on these accusations, saying Amazon has gone to "great lengths" to protect workers from the coronavirus.

Coronavirus may forever change how Big Tech works
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