amazon wristManaging orders in a fast moving environment can lead to some unusual (and sometimes strange) conditions. And when conditions are extremely time sensitive even the position of a worker’s hands can make the difference between delivering the order and missing. And that’s the issue Amazon seems to be tackling with its latest patent.

Ultrasonic wristbands may seem like overkill, and even overly intrusive if you’re an employee instructed to wear them, but they are likely not the last of the wearable technologies being added to the supply chain in the name of efficiency and speed. Amazon’s patent application calls for an “Ultrasonic bracelet and receiver for detecting position in 2D plane”  but the full explanation of their use is still open to conjecture.

Here’s the abstract from the USPTO filing:

Ultrasonic tracking of a worker's hands may be used to monitor performance of assigned tasks. An inventory system includes inventory bins configured to store inventory items, an ultrasonic unit, ultrasonic transducers, and a management module. The ultrasonic unit is configured to be worn by a user in proximity to the user's hand and to periodically emit ultrasonic sound pulses. The ultrasonic transducers are arranged relative to the inventory bins and configured to receive the emitted pulses. The management module is operatively coupled with the ultrasonic transducers and configured to process signals generated by the ultrasonic transducers to identify an inventory bin based on proximity of the ultrasonic unit relative to the identified inventory bin. The management module monitors performance of an assigned task based on the identified inventory bin.

The explanation boils down to tingling the worker’s wrist when they are near a particular item bin. That would make sense if the worker isn’t certain which bin they are supposed to pull product from and there’s a lot unsaid about distance from the bins and how or if the band could indicate which direction the bin is in and lead the worker to the right bin.

And ultrasonic is only part of the technology mix used in this idea. The bins are to be outfitted with infrared LEDs coupled to the ultrasonics and photocells to capture the infrared signals. And nearfield radio frequency signals are the actual signal transmitters. So it seems the ultrasonic part of the equation is the signal transmitted from the wrist band to the worker’s wrist as haptic feedback.

That’s a lot of tech and doesn’t even take into consideration the WHM system that manages the inventory and all the worker interactions.

The patent filing goes into more detail about the pulses and the specific tech. And if Amazon is able to increase its productivity in the warehouse without becoming overly invasive of its employees (something that’s already been alleged by some workers)  it may be able to continue to meet its aggressive delivery goals.

In all, this is part of the trend toward more technology in smaller components as the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to find applications in unlikely ways and in previously unthoughof places.

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