Amazon Receives Patent For ‘Ultrasonic Bracelet’ To Track Employees’ Hand Movements

This sophisticated and controversial technology could one day replace Amazon workers' handheld devices.

Amazon fulfillment centers could use ultrasonic bracelets in the future
Rich Pedroncelli / AP Images

This sophisticated and controversial technology could one day replace Amazon workers' handheld devices.

As technology evolves, so does its application in the workplace. In late February, Bloomberg reported that Amazon received a design patent for an “ultrasonic bracelet” that integrates sensors and vibrations to track and guide employee movements. At this time, it’s unknown whether Amazon will produce and implement the bracelet system.

According to GeekWire, the technology tracks the location of the employees’ hands and gives haptic feedback depending on whether the hands are reaching for the right bin in the warehouse. This is possible through the use of ultrasonic sound pulses and radio transmissions.

An Amazon spokesperson responded to critics of the patented technology, defending its effectiveness in guiding fulfillment associates while they work.

“The speculation about this patent is misguided. By moving equipment to associates’ wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens.”

One notable critic of the bracelets is the Italian Minister of Economic Development, Carlo Calenda. Medi Telegraph noted his firm opposition to the patented technology.

“I explained, and they understood, that something like that — which is not in use but has been patented — will never exist in Italy.”

James Bloodworth described the demanding and dreary working conditions of Amazon workers in a Sunday Times article. He went undercover in an Amazon distribution center in Rugeley as an order picker.

Amazon may introduce ultrasonic bracelets at fulfillment centers for efficiency
  Rich Pedroncelli / AP images

In the article, Bloodworth described a “handheld device that tracked our every move.” Management also used the device to send messages to him periodically. These messages ranged from orders to report to an office, or for him to pick up his pace. The device also tracked how far Bloodworth walked in a given day. The managers also scrutinized and ranked workers’ picking rate, per session.

Max Crawford, a former Amazon order picker, reiterated the expectations of management to maintain an incredible rate per session. According to an interview with the New York Times, Crawford processed “hundreds of items in an hour.”

In addition to the critics’ concerns surrounding privacy, others suggest that the patented technology could track when an employee stops working to merely “scratch or fidget.” This brings workplace tracking or surveillance to an entirely new level.

While Amazon describes the bracelet as a tool to make workers more efficient, it appears that some employees are already being pushed to their maximum work output. The ramifications of a sophisticated “ultrasonic bracelet” on the average Amazon worker is unknown.

In the past couple of years, other companies have also sought ways to integrate technology to maximize efficiency. For companies like Three Square Market, implanting microchips in employees’ hands was a way to make computer and door access as simple as a wave of the hand. The Washington Post reports that while some see it as a major convenience, others warn of its use as a surveillance tool.