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Amazon introduces AI social distancing assistants in warehouses

Amazon has introduced new units in its warehouses which can automatically determine whether staff are undertaking social distancing.

The new Distance Assistant, now active in a number of Amazon warehouses, uses a camera to detect whether staff are within six feet of each other.

It features a mirror-like screen which indicated employees that are the correct distance apart with green circles and those that aren’t with red circles.

While the assistant is currently only operating at a “handful” of its buildings, the ecommerce giant said it would roll out hundreds of the units over the next few weeks.

Amazon also said it would open source the software and AI so that other companies could build their own distance assistants.

“Given social distancing isn’t always natural, this team set out to use augmented reality to create a magic-mirror-like tool that helps associates see their physical distancing from others,” wrote Brad Porter, VP and engineer leading Amazon’s robotics programmes, in a blog.

“Working backwards from a concept of immediate visual feedback, and inspired by existing examples like radar speed check signs, our ‘Distance Assistant’ provides employees with live feedback on social distancing via a 50 inch monitor, a camera, and a local computing device.

“We’ve heard that employees find value in getting immediate visual feedback, and site leaders are welcoming another safety measure.”

Amazon has faced criticism during the pandemic over keeping warehouses open. Notably, in France, a court ruled that Amazon would have to limit the activity of its six warehouses in the country to only ship essential categories such as food, hygiene and medical items. After the ruling was upheld despite an appeal, Amazon decided to shut down the warehouses rather than risk a fine.

Eventually Amazon reached a deal with unions to reopen the warehouses in mid-May after closure for over a month.