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Amazon’s Distance Assistant Takes Social Distancing to a New Level

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Don’t stand so close to me: Amazon’s Distance Assistant helps employees keep their social distance.

Amazon, which has been criticized by employees for its safety standards at warehouses during the COVID-19 crisis, seems to be pulling out all of the technological stops to make its workplaces safer.

The Seattle-based online retail giant’s latest gadget is called the Distance Assistant.

It’s pretty darn cool — and what sounds like a great safety measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Let Brad Porter, the vice president and engineer leading Amazon’s robotics initiatives, explain.

“Distance Assistant provides employees with live feedback on social distancing via a 50-inch monitor, a camera and a local computing device,” Porter wrote on Amazon’s blog this week. “The standalone unit uses machine learning models to differentiate people from their surroundings. Combined with depth sensors, it creates an accurate distance measurement between associates.”

Who needs floor stickers when you have this?

Porter said Amazon embraced the opportunity to evolve its tech and promote social distancing behavior in real time.

“Given social distancing isn’t always natural, [we] set out to use augmented reality to create a magic mirror-like tool that helps associates see their physical distancing from others,” he explained, noting the technology was inspired by existing examples like radar speed check signs.

“As people walk past the camera, a monitor displays live video with visual overlays to show if associates are within 6 feet of one another,” Porter said. “Individuals remaining 6 feet apart are highlighted with green circles, while those who are closer together are highlighted with red circles. The on-screen indicators are designed to remind and encourage associates to maintain appropriate distance from others. The self-contained device requires only a standard electrical outlet, and can be quickly deployed to building entrances and other high-visibility areas.”

The first Distance Assistant installations are now live at a handful of Amazon buildings.

“We will be deploying hundreds of these units over the next few weeks,” Porter noted. “We are also beginning the process to open source the software and artificial intelligence behind this innovation so that anyone can create their own Distance Assistant.”

It has been reported that eight Amazon employees have died from COVID-19. Throughout the coronavirus virus, employees have made national news with their complaints about unsafe working conditions at busy warehouses and that Amazon wasn’t doing enough to promote social distancing and implementing other safety measures to combat the virus’s spread.

“This solution is just one of many ideas that have surfaced over the past few months,” Porter said of the Distance Assistant. “Knowing my colleagues and their drive, it will not be the last. 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.”

Amazon has also applied artificial intelligence and machine learning to the camera footage in its buildings to help site leaders identify high-traffic areas and implement additional measures to improve social distancing, Porter said.

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