This week at Wearacon, a wearable robotics conference, Delta announced it's exploring outfitting employees like "superheroes" (their words). The company just joined the ExoSkeleton Advisory Group alongside BMW, which is also headquartered in Atlanta. They'll be exploring how robot suits can deliver a best-of-both-worlds approach to heavy operations work by pairing people with robot power.

Plenty of people fear robots and AI will replace jobs over time. Yet full automation remains elusive--just consider the recent cyclist death in Arizona, when a self-driving Uber drove straight through her. The promises of artificial intelligence and automation are often too far out to be used at an enterprise level today, with a few notable exceptions. (Amazon has over 100,000 robots in its fulfillment centers, and is still one of the country's fastest net hiring firms.)

"The opportunity to deploy powered, full-body industrial exoskeletons that reduce injury and dramatically enhance human strength, endurance and precision is more proximate than most people realize," said Ben Wolff, CEO of Sarcos Robotics, one of the exoskeletons in the trial.

Delta emphasizes team values in the age of automation.

Delta says they're finding their own angle--one in alignment with their values to improve employee and passenger experience while not compromising safety. While many airlines get headlines by ignoring values--just remember United employees making jokes about dead dogs after suffocating one in an overhead bin--Delta has increasingly emphasized values since CEO Ed Bastian took the captain's chair. 

Delta stays strong on values despite financial bullying.

The most recent example? When Delta stood up to financial threats from the Republican-led Georgia legislature. Delta dropped its discount for NRA conference goers. This affected 13 people at the time--those who had booked at the discount.

"While Delta's intent was to remain neutral, some elected officials in Georgia tied our decision to a pending jet fuel tax exemption, threatening to eliminate it unless we reversed course," Bastian shared in a memo. Led by Republican majority boss Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, who is running to replace Nathan Deal as governor, Georgia legislators slapped Delta in the wallet by voting down a jet fuel sales tax exemption that had been seen as a likely win for the hometown carrier.

Delta is Atlanta's largest employer, with 31,200 of their 80,000 team members in the city. It's also the anchor carrier at Hartsfield Jackson, the world's busiest airport. Bastian responded: "Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale."

Augmenting workers' safety and strength with robots

"There is no greater responsibility we have than to keep our people and our customers safe," said Gil West, Delta's Chief Operating Officer, in a company memo emphasizing values. "This X-TAG is an innovative opportunity to think about how fitting our employees with wearable robotics can build on our strong personal safety culture and further protect our people from injury by giving them an additional layer of strength and protection." Delta was recently named to Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies.

Published on: Mar 23, 2018