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New York request to treat coronavirus patients on Navy hospital ship approved by Trump

Cuomo had told reporters earlier Monday that he was “going to call the President this afternoon and ask him to shift the (USNS) Comfort from non-Covid to Covid.”

Trump, speaking at a White House news briefing Monday afternoon, said he “was informed that Gov. Cuomo has already told you and announced he called me up a little while ago and asked whether or not it would be possible to use the ship with respect to fighting the virus.”

“We hadn’t had that in mind at all, but we’re going to let him do it,” Trump remarked.

“It’s set for Covid,” Trump said of the Comfort. The President also confirmed that the ship has been approved to treat New Jersey patients.

The US Navy hospital ship had originally been designated as a space for non-coronavirus patients to alleviate the pressure from New York hospitals, though Trump signaled this weekend that the ship could be used for coronavirus patients if needed.

“That was not supposed to be for the virus at all and under circumstances, it looks like more and more we’ll be using it for that,” he told reporters at the White House Sunday. “The ship is ready and if we need it for the virus, we’ll use it for that.”

The move comes as New York City’s hospitals have been overwhelmed with coronavirus cases and are struggling to respond to patients streaming in. A shortage of personal protective equipment has also placed medical workers at risk of contracting the virus.

As a result — even before Trump’s announcement Monday — Joint Staff Surgeon Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the top medical doctor for the military, said the USNS Comfort had already treated coronavirus patients, stating, “Our commitment has been that if a patient comes to us, we would take care of them.”

“Have we had patients who ultimately were determined to have coronavirus on the hospital ships? Yes,” Friedrichs said. “And we’re taking care of them, just like we’re taking care of all the other patients going forward.”

A defense official tells CNN that the Comfort has treated fewer than five coronavirus patients and the Pentagon has said that Comfort has treated a total of 41 patients.

“Having the Comfort here is a very, very important thing for New York City in terms of the number of patients served, but also an extraordinary morale boost when we needed it,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN Friday. “I don’t have a doubt in my mind, the Comfort will be filled up soon.”

CNN’s Nicky Robertson contributed to this report.

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Coral Princess cruise ship docks in Miami with coronavirus patients

This ends a voyage that began March 5 in Chile and was supposed to finish March 19 in Argentina, but it ran on for days as countries declined to welcome passengers ashore during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Coral Princess’ trip was lengthened even though none of the ship’s occupants tested positive for the disease until this week.

It’s still not clear how soon all of the 1,000-plus passengers and 878 crew will disembark in Miami, but some of the most seriously ill will leave first and go to hospitals, Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Saturday.

Princess Cruises had said Thursday that 12 people aboard — seven guests and five crew — were positive for Covid-19, after a small group of people with respiratory illness were tested Tuesday.

The company announced Saturday that two guests had died. Gimenez said both died of coronavirus. Their names were not released.

“I want to offer my condolences to the families of the loved ones of the two people who died from Covid-19 on that ship. It is heartbreaking news,” Gimenez said.

“Our hearts go out to their family, friends and all who are impacted by this loss,” the cruise line said in a statement released to news media.

Healthy passengers will start leaving Sunday

Two passengers needing immediate medical attention will be taken to Miami’s Larkin Community Hospital, and an unspecified number of others also will be taken to hospitals soon, Gimenez said.

Coronavirus deaths pass 60,000 globally

About 15 other ill passengers who don’t need immediate hospitalization will remain aboard for medical treatment until they are cleared for travel by the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Gimenez said.

Guests fit to fly home will start leaving the ship Sunday, but the disembarking “is expected to take several days due to limited flight availability,” Princess Cruises said.

More than 990 passengers and 840 crew members have been deemed fit for travel, Gimenez said Saturday.

‘It’s a stressful time,’ daughter says as ill parents remain aboard

Julie Maa is worried about her parents, who are aboard the ship and ill.

Her father, in his early 70s, tested positive for Covid-19 this week. Her mother, in her 60s, also has a fever and is coughing, Maa said.

Maa, at her home in New York, has been talking to them by phone. On Saturday morning, officials were telling them that they would have to convalesce in a medical ward on the ship, and that her father needed supplemental oxygen.

All guests had been asked to stay in their rooms starting Monday after medical staff noticed a higher-than-normal number of people with flu-like symptoms, the company said.

With the ship docked Saturday, Maa’s parents were preparing for their stay in the medical ward.

Her parents, from the San Francisco area, were traveling with three senior couples they’ve known since college.

“It’s a stressful time at the moment,” she told CNN on Saturday.

Caught at sea as the world changed

The Coral Princess was about halfway through its voyage around South America when, on March 12, Princess Cruises said it would end underway cruises as soon as possible as worldwide concerns about coronavirus grew.

The ship was to disembark at Buenos Aires as originally scheduled on March 19, in part because guests already had air travel booked there, the company said.

It did dock there, but the government allowed only Argentine passport holders and people with confirmed flights that day to disembark, according to Princess Cruises.

The ship then departed that night, after the Argentine government warned the ship would be required to stay there indefinitely — with no passengers disembarking — if it remained past midnight, the company said.

The Coral Princess then asked for permission to disembark passengers at port in Uruguay, where it picked up provisions, March 21, and Brazil, but were denied.

Passengers will be allowed off Zaandam and Rotterdam cruise ships off Florida

The ship, then heading toward Florida, picked up more supplies in Barbados on March 31.

Two other cruise ships carrying passengers with flu-like symptoms — the Zaandam and the Rotterdam — docked in Florida’s Port Everglades on Thursday evening, ending their own nightmarish voyages disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Most of the cruise line industry announced a voluntarily suspension of cruise ship operations from US ports of call on March 13, and the CDC issued a “no sail” order on March 14 to all cruise ships that had not voluntarily suspended operations.

CNN’s Rosa Flores, Artemis Moshtaghian and Francesca Street contributed to this report.

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4 ‘older’ guests have died on a cruise ship where 2 people tested positive for coronavirus

The statement did not provide a cause of death or say when exactly the guests died.

As of Friday, 138 people — 53 guests and 85 crew members — had reported flu-like symptoms, Holland America said in its statement. There are 1,243 guests and 586 crew members on board the ship, which is now off the coast of Panama.

On Thursday, a “number of patients with respiratory symptoms” tested for coronavirus, Holland America said, and two people were positive.

The ship is currently about eight miles off the west coast of Panama, according to the Panamanian government. Holland America said it plans to transfer healthy passengers from Zaandam to the Rotterdam ship, a sister ship, following CDC protocols. The ships exchanged medical supplies Thursday evening.

“Only those who have not been ill will be moved, and health screenings will be conducted before transferring,” the company said. Once onboard the Rotterdam, guests will remain inside their rooms until disembarking.

The Panama Canal announced Friday on Twitter the Zaandam will not be able to use the canal to get to Florida.

“If a vessel has individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 on board, it cannot make any port operations or transit the canal,” said the statement.

The transit of any ship requires canal personnel to board the vessel to ensure a safe passage throughout the waterway, the statement says. All vessels have to comply with health regulations and the “prevention of contagious diseases,” according to Panama’s Canal and health authorities.

The cruise line’s news release said that when the ship first saw guests report flu-like symptoms on March 22, the crew took protective measures and asked all guests to self-isolate in their rooms. All guests and crew members received face masks Thursday.

Clifford Kolber, a passenger on the ship, told CNN Friday he and his wife have been in isolation on the Zaandam since Sunday. He and his wife have pre-existing conditions.

“We just want the ports in the country to help us because don’t want more people to die,” Kolber said.

Ship left Buenos Aires on March 7

The cruise line said the Zaandam departed Buenos Aires on March 7 and was originally scheduled to end its cruise at San Antonio, Chile, on March 21. The cruise line decided to end its current cruises in progress.

No one has been off the ship since March 14 in Punta Arenas, Chile, the cruise line said.

The Zaandam is not the only cruise ship in limbo because of the coronavirus. Cruise Lines International Association said at least 14 ocean-going ships worldwide are completing journeys or awaiting disembarkation.

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Grand Princess: A cruise ship that carried a man who died from coronavirus is headed back to California with 2,500 passengers

That’s because the Grand Princess cruise ship previously carried a passenger who just became the first person to die from coronavirus in California.

The Grand Princess was on a 15-day voyage and was scheduled to return Saturday. But the trip was cut short after news broke Wednesday of the California man’s death.

The ship is now near the California coast, but must remain at sea as it awaits coronavirus test kits to be delivered by helicopter.

“Public health officials have advised that no guests will be permitted to disembark until all results have been received,” Princess Cruises said in a statement.

But not all passengers will be tested.

“While there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 currently on board, the CDC has identified groups of guests and crew who will be tested before arrival into San Francisco,” the cruise line said.

“There are fewer than 100 guests and crew identified for testing, including all in-transit guests (guests who were on the previous Mexico voyage and remained onboard for the current Hawaii voyage), those guests and crew who have experienced influenza-like illness symptoms on this voyage, and guests currently under care for respiratory illness.”

Passenger Sharon Lane said she’s worried about elderly guests on board, who may be more vulnerable to coronavirus.

“People are starting to get worried and especially on this cruise,” said Lane, who’s from the United Kingdom. “On this cruise, it’s mainly really elderly people.”

The global death toll from coronavirus has topped 3,300

At least 21 people — 11 passengers and 10 crew members — currently on board the Grand Princess ship have developed symptoms of illness, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Newsom declared a state of emergency and said local health officials are working with their federal counterparts to trace people who had contact with the man who died.

“This emergency proclamation will help the state further prepare our communities and our health care system in the event it spreads more broadly,” he said.

Princess Cruises said it has shared relevant travel and health data with the CDC to help notify state and county health officials, who will follow up with anyone who may have been exposed to coronavirus.

What we know about the man who died

The unidentified man was 71 years old and had underlying health conditions, Placer County health officials said.

He was likely exposed to the virus on a Grand Princess cruise from San Francisco to Mexico between February 11 to 21. His death was announced Wednesday.

Shortly after the Grand Princess finished its Mexico trip on February 21, it started another cruise to Hawaii.

Princess Cruises said 62 of people on the current cruise were also on the previous voyage with the 71-year-old man.

How the testing will work

The Coast Guard will deliver test kits to the ship by helicopter. A medical team on board will then administer the tests.

What actually happens during a coronavirus test?
The test samples will then be sent by helicopter to a lab in Richmond, California, Princess Cruises said.

The cruise line said federal health officials are requiring anyone from the previous voyage to remain in their rooms until they’ve been cleared.

The cruise ship canceled its stop in Ensenada, Mexico, which was scheduled for Thursday, and headed back toward San Francisco instead. It’s not clear exactly when the ship will stop near the coast of California.

Some passengers are confined to their rooms, but others aren’t

Passenger Cheri Breault Harris is confined to her room because she was a passenger on the previous voyage.

“They were going to examine us today, but that never happened,” Harris said Wednesday. “I guess they are waiting for the CDC to say what to do after we get to (San Francisco).”

Japanese gov't adviser: Diamond Princess quarantine was flawed

Harris said she’s “not happy about being confined,” but “luckily, my husband and I like each other.”

“Spirits are as high as can be under the circumstances,” she said. “We are blessed to be healthy, comfortable and well-fed.”

In another part of the ship, Mark Pace and his wife Beth are celebrating her birthday on the cruise. They sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii, where they spent four days on several islands.

The Florida couple said they were not confined to their rooms as of Wednesday night. Pace said the cruise ship had canceled its theater shows, but the casino was open.

“We are a little nervous about it. We knew it was a possibility,” Pace said. “We came prepared with two weeks of extra medication and my laptop so that I could work if we were confined.”

Pace said they’ve noticed subtle changes on the cruise. They had to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer before getting a plate and silverware for the buffet.

“And crew handled everything,” he said. “We were not allowed to serve ourselves.”

US coronavirus cases and deaths keep rising

A state-by-state breakdown of US coronavirus cases
Health officials are urging local communities to think of ways to stop the coronavirus from spreading as the number of cases soared past 160 nationwide.
That number includes at least 46 former passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the site of a recent coronavirus outbreak and quarantine.
At least 11 people have died from coronavirus across the US. In addition to the former Grand Princess passenger in California, 10 people have died in Washington state — including many who are linked to a long-term nursing hom near Seattle.

CNN’s Steve Almasy, Stella Chan, Amanda Jackson and Mike Figliola contributed to this report

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Carnival Glory is headed back to New Orleans after colliding with another cruise ship in Mexico

The Carnival Glory was “maneuvering to dock” when it hit the Carnival Legend, which was already docked in Cozumel, Mexico, Carnival Cruise Line said. Six guests with minor injuries went to the Carnival Glory medical center for evaluation.

The vessel set sail from the Cozumel port late Friday. It is expected to arrive at the Port of New Orleans at 6 a.m. Sunday, the Port of New Orleans website says.

“The ship has been inspected by required authorities and there are no issues that impact our ability to sail safely back to New Orleans,” the Glory’s captain, Pero Grubjesic said in a letter obtained by CNN that was provided to the cruise ship’s passengers.

A formal investigation is underway to determine the cause of the crash, Grubjesic said in the letter. The cruise line believes the collision “was due to spontaneous wind gusts and strong currents,” he wrote.

Carnival (CCL) describes the incident as an allision between the two ships. An allision is a nautical term used to describe when a moving ship collides with a stationary object, such as another ship.

As a result of the crash, the cruise line provided passengers with a $100, per room, onboard credit, the captain’s letter said.

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Harvey Milk: The Navy is building a ship named after him

During his time as a diving instructor in San Diego, California in the 1950s, his supervisors caught him at a park popular with gay men, according to his nephew Stuart Milk.

And in 1955, after the Navy officially questioned him about his sexual orientation, he was made to resign with the rank of lieutenant junior grade.

More than 60 years later, the Navy began construction Friday on the USNS Harvey Milk, a new oiler ship that will resupply fuel to other ships at sea.
“(This) sends a global message of inclusion more powerful than simply ‘We’ll tolerate everyone,'” Stuart Milk said at a ceremony in San Diego, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. “(It says) We celebrate everyone.”
The Navy announced in 2016 that it would name a ship after the veteran and gay rights activist who was assassinated in 1978.
Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus puts on a hat for the new USNS Harvey Milk during a ceremony on August 16, 2016.

The USNS Harvey Milk is one of the oilers in a class named after Georgia Congressman and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, which also includes vessels named for civil rights leaders such as Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone and Robert F. Kennedy.

The move was welcomed by LGBTQ activists and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who in 2012 urged the Navy secretary to name a ship after Milk.
“When Harvey Milk served in the military, he couldn’t tell anyone who he truly was,” Scott Wiener, then a San Francisco supervisor, wrote after the 2016 announcement. “Now our country is telling the men and women who serve, and the entire world, that we honor and support people for who they are.”

The military’s policies on LGBTQ rights

Things have changed considerably in the military since Milk’s service.

About 15 years after Milk was assassinated, President Bill Clinton signed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy that banned military personnel from discriminating against closeted LGBTQ service members but still barred openly LGBTQ people from serving in the armed forces.

President Barack Obama repealed that policy in 2011, allowing LGBTQ people to serve openly in the military.

But some barriers still remain.

In April of this year, the Trump administration’s controversial policy banning transgender recruits from joining the military went into effect.

A fierce advocate for LGBT rights

Milk was one of the first openly gay politicians elected to office in the United States, and the first openly gay official elected in California.

After moving from New York to California, Milk helped start the Castro Village Association, one of the first predominantly LGBTQ-owned business groups in the country. In 1977, he was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.

While serving as a city supervisor, Milk introduced legislation to protect the gay community, including a gay rights ordinance in 1978 to ban discrimination against LGBTQ in housing or employment. He and other activists also succeeded in striking down Proposition 6, which would have mandated the firing of gay or lesbian teachers in California.

Less than a year after Milk was inaugurated as city supervisor, he and Mayor George Moscone were shot to death in the San Francisco city hall by a former fellow city supervisor over a job dispute.

When his killer was sentenced to seven years, riots broke out over what many perceived to be a lenient sentence.

In 2009, President Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Medal of Freedom to recognize his contributions as a trailblazing advocate for LGBTQ rights.

CNN’s Erika Ryan and Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.

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Golden Ray: Crews have finished removing 320,000 gallons of oil and water from overturned cargo ship

More than 320,000 gallons of oil and water mixture were removed.

To improve stability of the wreck, crews are now working to remove the propeller, propeller shaft and rudder, which weigh a total of approximately 130 tons.

“Due to the vessel’s orientation on its side, these components are creating a load which the vessel was not designed to support. Imagine holding a milk jug with an outstretched arm compared to the same weight hanging at your side. Removing these components will help reduce the stresses on the hull,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jeremiah Winston, director of the Unified Command Salvage Branch.

Plans are now being considered for construction of an environmental protection barrier and removal of the wreckage. An approved plan has yet not been selected.

The 656-foot vessel has been resting on its side in shallow water in St. Simons Sound since September 8, when it listed heavily after leaving nearby Port Brunswick. The ship was carrying around 4,000 automobiles for export.

The St. Simons Unified Command team said in October it planned to disassemble the vessel and remove it from the water in sections once the fuel was removed.

The 24 people on board — 23 crew members and one pilot — were rescued in the days after the ship capsized.

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The family whose toddler fell to her death from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship sues the company

Michael Winkleman, the family’s attorney, said at a news conference the “singular goal” of the lawsuit is to raise awareness about the risk of falling from windows and “prevent this from ever happening to another child again.”

Chloe Wiegand, 18 months old, was playing on a Royal Caribbean ship docked in Puerto Rico with her grandfather, Salvatore “Sam” Anello, when she fell from an open glass window to her death.

The lawsuit says the glass panes on the deck can be slid open by any passenger, and the walls didn’t contain warnings that the panes could open.

Chloe’s family argues the cruise line failed to comply with industry safety standards to prevent guests from falling from windows.

Kimberly Wiegand said the cruise line “played a major role” in the toddler’s death. She said she hopes the lawsuit improves safety on board for children and families.

“If this lawsuit prevents another death, then it is worth it to us,” she said.

Royal Caribbean spokesman Jonathon Fishman declined to comment on the civil filing when reached by CNN.

“Our hearts go out to the family for their tragic loss. Mr. Salvatore Anello is currently being criminally prosecuted for negligent homicide in the case,” Fishman said.

The fall

In July, Anello was supervising Chloe on the 11th deck of the Royal Caribbean ship Freedom of the Seas, according to the suit.

The lawsuit says Chloe wandered over to a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass on the deck, and he didn’t realize one of the panes was open.

The suit says Chloe asked to be lifted up to bang on the glass, something she did frequently at her brother’s hockey games.

Anello hoisted her up and she leaned forward, but she slipped from his hands through the open pane and fell 150 feet onto the San Juan Pier, according to the suit.

She died from the fall.

Anello told CBS News he wouldn’t have placed the toddler near the window if he’d known it was open. He noted that he’s colorblind, which might explain why he didn’t notice the tinted glass was open.

“If there were some kind of warning sign, we wouldn’t even have been near it.”

Grandfather charged with negligent homicide

The details of Chloe’s death have been disputed since the accident. Officials for the port authority said her grandfather sat her in the window, lost his balance and the toddler fell to her death.

Puerto Rican authorities charged Anello with negligent homicide.

Wiegand said she doesn’t support the charges against Chloe’s grandfather, who is her stepfather.

Grandfather charged in death of toddler on cruise ship

“I want to be clear and unequivocal: We do not support this misdemeanor charge or any charges whatsoever,” Wiegand said. “We are here today as a family supporting one another and we will continue to do so. Our family has already lost everything; what purpose could possibly be served by prosecuting a misdemeanor offense?”

Anello told CBS News he initially blamed himself for Chloe’s death. Now, he blames the cruise line.

“I just want them to fix the boat. Just fix it. Just fix the boat.”

The girl would’ve celebrated her second birthday this week

Chloe would’ve turned 2 this week, Wiegand said.

She “spread happiness wherever she went” and gave “wet kisses and big hugs,” Wiegand said.

“We should be celebrating with a present and a birthday cake, but instead we’re here talking about her death,” she said. “I spend my evenings visiting with her urn rather than rocking my little girl to sleep.”

Wiegand asked people to do random acts of kindness on Friday in her daughter’s memory.

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Grandfather cries as he recounts toddler falling to her death from a cruise ship

“I bent down by her. We always, like, whenever you’re at hockey games, we would bang on the glass, and it was fun, you know,” Anello said in an exclusive interview with CBS News. “So, when I knelt down to be with her at that level, I couldn’t reach the glass really, only with my fingertips so I knew she couldn’t. So that’s when I decided I’d pick her up. So, I was trying to stand her on the railing, and it happened in seconds.”

The details of the toddler’s death have been disputed since the accident. Port Authority officials said Anello sat the girl in the window and lost his balance, and the girl fell to her death.

Michael Winkleman, the attorney who represents Chloe’s family but does not represent Anello in his criminal case, said the toddler loved glass and windows, and her grandfather had placed her on a ledge by a glass wall, but had no idea one window was open.

With one arm hooked around her, Anello said he was leaning forward to knock on the glass with his other arm, “I think that’s the point where she — slipped out of me.”

CBS said Winkleman showed its reporters video of the incident.

“The video shown to us was not in real time,” correspondent David Begnaud said. The family attorney “says the video that he showed us was the same format he received from prosecutors,” Begnaud added.

Noting a discrepancy in how long Anello was holding Chloe, Begnaud said, “the grandfather actually looks out the window for about eight seconds. He reaches down, he picks Chloe up, and he holds her over the railing for nearly 25 seconds.”

In a statement to CBS News, Winkleman said, “any variation in time likely has to do with software issues. Most importantly, whether it was 5, 10, or 30 seconds does nothing to change the fact that Sam reasonably believed the window was closed.”

The fall

Anello said he would never have risked his granddaughter’s life.

“Not knowing that there wasn’t a glass there, if somehow I thought that she was going beyond the glass, I wouldn’t have done it. I would have been appalled. I wouldn’t mess around with Chloe in that kind — or anybody — with that dangerous kind of — never. Never.”

Anello mentioned he is color blind and that could have played a role in why he didn’t see that the tinted glass was open.

“If there were some kind of warning sign, we wouldn’t even have been near it. We wouldn’t even have been near it.”

The family blames Royal Caribbean

Chloe’s mother, Kimberly Wiegand, says she blames the cruise company for the incident and wants it to be held accountable in court.

“This cannot happen to another family,” she said.

The parents of a toddler who died after falling from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship blame the company

In a statement shortly after the incident, Royal Caribbean Cruises said the company was “deeply saddened by this incident, and our hearts go out to the family.”

“We have assisted the authorities in San Juan with their inquiries, and they are the appropriate people to address further questions,” the statement said.

Initially, Anello said he blamed himself.

“I couldn’t help but blame myself. But I know that, I know that if there was a sign, if there was something that indicated there was a chance for that window to be an opening, that this wouldn’t happen,” Anello said.

Anello says he now blames the cruise line.

“I just want them to fix the boat. Just fix it. Just fix the boat.”

The charges

“There’s nothing worse that they can do to me than what’s already happened,” he said, fighting through tears. “Chloe being gone is the worst thing ever, so I’m like, whatever, you know.”

He remembered his granddaughter as “such a beautiful little girl. Perfect little girl. Smart, smart little girl, that everybody should have been able to know.”

Anello is due back in court in December in Puerto Rico.

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Amazon wants to ship you anything in 30 minutes. It’s going to need a lot of robots

“When we have a full drone fleet you’ll be able to order anything and get it in 30 minutes if you live near a hub that’s serviced by drones,” Amazon CEO of Worldwide Consumer Jeff Wilke told CNN Business. “That’s only possible because of robotics.”

Amazon has built out a network of costly fulfillment centers across the US and the world. Inside lies a critical advantage, robots that have made the buildings faster and more cost-efficient. They may well pave the way for a new era of same-hour deliveries.

To continue to speed up delivery times and stay ahead of competitors, Amazon will need even more robots. Amazon is testing robots that carry packages on sidewalks. It’s invested in self-driving vehicles.

Amazon’s robot push could trigger more successes, but also exposes it to harder challenges than operating in environments it controls, like fulfillment centers.

CNN Business spoke with current and former Amazon executives as well as robotics experts to explore how one robot has already transformed Amazon, and how the next generation of robots may forever change Amazon once again.

Amazon first dabbles in robots

Nothing seemed impressive about Amazon’s first robot.

It didn’t walk like C-3PO or talk like Rosie the Robot. It didn’t even have arms, legs or a face. Its stubby frame was only good for sliding under a bookshelf and moving it.

“A homemade microwave on wheels,” was how one potential customer described it to Jason Reneau, an early employee at Kiva Systems, which invented the robot in 2002. 

The startup was so desperate for business it offered full refunds to entice customers.

“There’s no way that works,” recalled Nick Swinmurn, founder of Amazon subsidiary Zappos, of the first time he saw a Kiva robot.

Industrial robots weren’t new when Amazon first experimented with Kiva robots. For decades, automakers had used giant robotic arms to help assemble cars. Manufacturing plants relied on primitive robots to move materials on fixed routes.

However, Kiva Systems was the only company trying to use mobile robots to speed up ecommerce warehouses. It figured out how a flock of free-ranging robots could safely bring bookshelves to stations manned by humans, who would pick merchandise from the shelves to complete an order. Then the robots return the shelf to a resting spot, sliding around hundreds of nearby robots. Barcode stickers on the floor help the robots know their location and avoid collisions.

Robots move shelves of merchandise at an Amazon fulfillment center.

Before the Kiva robot, e-commerce employees in warehouses had to walk up and down long aisles, to retrieve goods from shelves.

“You see all these articles about people having to walk 15 miles a day,” said Dave Glick, a former Amazon executive who helped integrate the Kiva robots. “You’re spending capital to make humans more efficient. Now they’re picking more things and standing in one place, so it’s not as physically grueling.” (Amazon has been criticized over the years for difficult working conditions and injuries in its fulfillment centers.)
9 challenges Amazon faces on its 25th birthday

Amazon bought Kiva Systems in March 2012, kicking off a whirlwind. Kiva’s senior engineers flew to Seattle and holed up in a conference room for a week with Amazon leaders. Glick’s team prioritized building a proof of concept with Kiva’s technology. By early 2013, Amazon was shipping some packages with the help of Kiva robots out of a facility south of Seattle, according to Glick.

Before the end of 2014, Amazon fulfillment centers were home to 15,000 Kiva robots.

Amazon has redesigned the robot four times since buying Kiva, according to Tye Brady, the chief technologist at Amazon Robotics. Seemingly small changes — the latest robot is several inches shorter — have allowed Amazon to make its bookshelves bigger. More goods are packed in existing warehouses, saving millions on new warehouse costs.

“That was quite a slam dunk,” said Rian Whitton, a robotics analyst at ABI Research.  “They scaled it very impressively and in a short period of time.”

Robots shift from factory floors to the skies

Today Amazon’s robot ambitions extend far beyond its fulfillment centers. These new teams operate independently of the initial Kiva Systems group. Amazon doesn’t say how many employees work on robotics, only that they’re among the tens of thousands working on artificial intelligence.

Amazon is testing four-wheeled delivery robots that roll on sidewalks. Earlier this month, Amazon announced plans for a new facility outside Boston to design and build robots. It’s invested in a self-driving car startup, and Amazon goods have been seen being hauled by a self-driving truck. Amazon has spent more than six years developing drones, which may one day drop packages in backyards assuming regulators allow it.

This July, Amazon held its first-ever “Botapalooza,” an internal conference that brought together robotics employees from across the company. Amazon wants to encourage collaboration among its robotics teams, which can use the help.

 “We’re still encountering things that we didn’t really consider would be on sidewalks — parked cars, kids’ bicycles,” said Sean Scott, who leads the Amazon Scout program that delivers packages with sidewalk robots. It’s testing in Snohomish, Washington, and Irvine, California.
Amazon Scout is designed to deliver packages on sidewalks.

Sometimes garbage cans or recycling bins block the robots. Stray cats have stalked them. Amazon had to halt its Washington tests in February and March following heavy snowfall.

 “We’re at the early days of all of this,” Scott said. “We’re just getting started in terms of the capabilities of what we can unlock.”

While sidewalks are tough for robots to master, flying above it all isn’t necessarily easier.

Amazon’s drone will have to avoid telephone wires draped across backyards and streets. They’ll have to dodge tree branches, birds and dogs patrolling backyards. Amazon has built a way for the drone to automatically find a safe landing place in case of an emergency landing.

 “We’ll fly as soon as we’re safe, not any moment sooner,” said Gur Kimchi, who leads Amazon’s drone efforts.

A flight test video of Amazon Prime Air's delivery drone in June 2019.

More robots, more problems

Amazon risks a public backlash if something goes wrong with its newer robots. And unlike with Kiva, there’s competition. Major companies such as Alphabet, FedEx and UPS are all investing in drone delivery.

Amazon will also have to face questions about the impact of robots on jobs. Amazon’s dive into robotics has coincided with hundreds of thousands of new hires. Amazon entered 2012 — the year it bought Kiva — with fewer employees than Microsoft and Apple, and roughly as many as Google.  Now it has more employees than Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook combined. Amazon is the only one to have deployed robots at scale, putting it right at the center over the debate — and fears — over automation. The concern is that, while it’s adding workers today, it will be eager to offload them, especially the least skilled and vulnerable ones, once the robots are ready.

“I do worry sometimes when people equate [artificial intelligence] and robotics with job loss,” Wilke said. “If you look at these kinds of technological innovations over the years it tends to be the case they don’t eliminate jobs, they tend to change jobs and change work. This is true for us.”

A study from the consulting group McKinsey has cautioned that as many as 375 million workers will need to change their occupational category by 2030 due to automation.

Some robotics analysts CNN Business spoke with predicted that Amazon would try to add robotics and automation to its entire operation. They described it as inevitable given Amazon’s focus on efficiency and pleasing customers.

Amazon plans to retrain 100,000 employees

Pete Wurman, who co-founded Kiva and has since left Amazon, said that during his tenure he encouraged the company to fund its “picking challenge,” a now defunct competition for academics and small companies to automate the process of removing goods from shelves. Eventually, he expects some of the picking process to be automated.

But Wurman cautions that what’s easy for humans — like identifying and taking handmade jewelry in a clear bag off a shelf —  has proven incredibly tough for machines. He said he’s optimistic on the long-term societal implications of automation.

“We’re really good at seeing how they’ll take away the jobs we know about,” Wurman said. “But we’re really bad about seeing the jobs that will be created.”

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