LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Autonomous mobile robots have reached new levels of maturity and adoption, but technical and business challenges remain, said speakers and attendees at a conference here last week.
More than 430 people attended the 2019 Autonomous Mobile Robot Conference, which was produced by the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) and the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). The sessions on autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) covered topics including the development of AMRs, standards efforts, and mobile manipulation.
Here are six takeaways from the RIA’s first Autonomous Mobile Robot Conference:
1. Autonomous mobile robot accuracy improving but varies
Most autonomous mobile robots are similar, but the differences in how they work affects their safety and usefulness in different environments, explained Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, which recently raised $46 million. She noted the design options for sensors, odometry, localization, mapping, navigation, obstacle avoidance, and object detection.
For instance, depending on the sensors and algorithms used, an AMR’s estimation of its location and surroundings could be more or less accurate, said Wise.
“All AMR companies have different methods for localization and mapping,” she said. “Users should evaluate mapping at scale — if you have 10,000 sq. ft., don’t test in lab situations.”
Energy and payload requirements have created demand for ever smaller and faster components, Juan Avalos, an application engineer at Brother Gearmotors, told The Robot Report. “Lights-out operations are still a ways away, but we’re now optimizing designs for efficiency,” he said.
In the near term, advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning will lead to improved path planning with remote sensing, obstacle avoidance, and object recognition, said Josh Cloer, sales director at Mobile Industrial Robots ApS (MiR). He described MiR’s AI Camera, which can detect and classify objects and communicate with other robots and vehicles.
In the long term, AI, the industrial Internet of Things, and 5G and the cloud could work with AMRs for reliable, low-latency “limitless computing power with what’s onboard plus the cloud,” Cloer said. “Robots could someday perceive their environments through every connected sensor in real time, learn naturally and use natural-language processing, maintain their own hardware by predicting failures and be fixed by other robots, and consult with people on increasing overall efficiency within the facility.”
“We need a lot more sensor fusion,” said said Brandon Coats, product manager at Material Handling Systems Inc. (MHS), which hosted a facilities tour after the conference. “Vision-based SLAM [simultaneous localization and mapping] will be a key player in the next few years. Robots will also be able to detect and classify anything, change their behavior based on what the obstacle is, read bar and QR codes, and know what to pick up.”
Related content: The Robot Report issue on mobile robotics
2. Standards work continues
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn’t have a specific robot safety standard, not even for robot arms, noted Wise. However, robots need to legally comply with National Recognized Testing Laboratories such as (but not limited to) UL, and the RIA is developing ANSI R15.08 for industrial mobile robots.
The RIA has been working on the standard for four years and is currently focusing on the first part, which covers definitions, design requirements and protective measures, verification and validation, and information for equipment use, explained Michael Gerstenberger, chair of the RIA standards committee. The other parts will focus on site- and application-specific requirements and guidance to autonomous mobile robot users.
“We’ve made good progress this week,” said Carole Franklin, director of standards development at the RIA, which held committee meetings around the conference.
In a panel on the business case for AMRs, Harry Chase, director of advance materials at GE Appliances, said that companies like his are looking for autonomous mobile robots to improve safety and reduce damage. GE Appliances had set a goal of reducing forklift accidents by 50% within two years.
3. Developers, suppliers must know their customers
Although some analysts, politicians, and media outlets have expressed concern about robots taking skilled jobs, there will be 3.4 million manufacturing jobs in the next decade, 2 million of which will go unfilled, according to a Deloitte study cited by Matthew Rendall, CEO of Clearpath, the industrial division of OTTO Motors.
In addition, “consumer expectations are rising, with demand rising for locally produced, personalized, low-cost, same-day free shipping and returns,” he said. This creates both opportunities and challenges for autonomous mobile robot designers, suppliers, and users.
“Education is still important, as industrial automation grows to include cobots and AMRs,” said Bob Doyle, vice president of the RIA and A3 Mexico. “I visited an integrator who said the biggest competition is inaction. Many companies are not yet at Industry 3.0, let alone Industry 4.0, and our session on ‘Automation 101’ at Automate was full.”
Rendall said that AMR developers need to design for safety, secure data collection and sharing, and scale. “Operational availability is not as simple as 99% uptime,” he said. “Think of how many deliveries are needed per hour.”
The number of AMRs in a facility will affect Wi-Fi network demand and fleet manager capacity, so virtual testing, policies for quality of service, and an understanding of diagnostics and reporting are necessary, said Rendall. He showed an example “spaghetti” heat map of robot movements and materials flow.
In designing for scale, think of “How would my operation run entirely with AMRs?” Rendall said. “You can’t directly automate people on trucks. You need event and process simulation, and you need to answer questions at the process level, not the floor or machine level.”
“Matching the technology to the use case is paramount,” said David Clear, vice president of business development at Vecna Robotics, which this week opened new headquarters in Waltham, Mass. “You need to get buy-in from different levels of the organization, find the right application, and demonstrate value. It’s easy to sell one robot but harder to get to the next one or a fleet.”
“There are a lot of material handling opportunities — in manufacturing, warehouses, hospitality, retail, and healthcare, where we started. Don’t focus so much on the technology but on what you need to do,” said Tony Melanson, vice president of marketing at Aethon. “There are lots of different types of AMRs and supporting software. We need to go beyond the robot to supporting technologies and connected services.”
In response to a question, Melanson explained an example of how Aethon integrated its TUG to work with laundry cleaning providers.
Robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) business models are good for some use cases, but larger enterprises prefer to capitalize their investments, said Aaron Prather, senior technical advisor at FedEx. He also recommended that AMR companies have a stronger presence around major logistics hubs such as Louisville and Memphis.
4. Interoperability in demand
Rather than look to one robot or supplier to solve every supply chain problem, there are different types of robots for different applications, noted Denise Ebenhoech, regional head of advanced robotic applications at KUKA AG.
She said that since each autonomous mobile robot is designed for different payloads, maneuverability (such as moving with omnidirectional wheels), and degrees of safe collaboration with people, users must work with suppliers to find the best fit. In addition, both software developers and integrators must prepare to manage heterogenous environments.
“There will be more demand for interoperability among different technologies and cooperation among vendors,” said Vecna’s Clear.
“How will end users manage multi-AMR environments? How will MiR, Vecna, Locus, and OTTO talk with one another?” asked FedEx’s Prather. “A recent audit of ground-support equipment at our Memphis hub found 32 different manufacturers. We use a real-time location system to track all the GSE inside our four walls.”
An attendee from a major automaker said that his organization wasn’t satisfied with existing fleet-management software for AMRs from multiple vendors and plans to develop its own.
5. Mobile manipulation is promising but just getting started
Advances in sensors, controls, user interfaces, and end effectors are finally making mobile manipulation a reality, said Norm Williams, director of robotics at OMRON. He noted that robots need to perceive a wider area when dealing with grasping as well as two-dimensional motion and that power requirements also rise when combining arms with mobile platforms.
Robotics developers should also have a clear understanding of the intended function and design for stability and safety, Williams said, citing OMRON’s new mobile manipulator as an example.
Eric Harty, vice president of strategic marketing at Honeywell Intelligrated, described how the suction cups, rollers, advanced vision, onboard intelligence, machine learning went into the autonomous mobile robot.
He explained the potential labor savings: Normally, it would take three people making $15 dollars an hour to unload 400 to 800 cases in an hour, while the robot could unload boxes at a rate of 800 to 1,000 per hour. This would equal annual savings of $438,000 to $702,000 per truck, not including the costs of injuries, rehiring, and training.
“AMRs combine navigation and sensing, while autonomous mobile manipulation systems or AMMRs combine navigation, sensing, and manipulation,” said John Cameron, chief robotics engineer at IAM Robotics. AMMRs offer a lower potential cost and can relieve employees of tedious work. However, they also may result in a lower increase in pick rates and require more setup, he said.
The Robot Report is launching the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, which will be on Dec. 9-10 in Santa Clara, Calif. The conference and expo will focus on improving the design, development, and manufacture of next-generation healthcare robots. Learn more about the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, and registration is now open.
6. New autonomous mobile robot frontiers
“The [autonomous mobile robot] industry is still in its infancy,” said MHS’s Coats. “We’re looking at robot-to-robot interaction, how to manage large fleets, swarm or decentralized robot behavior. We had to track total cost of ownership for all cases, including robots, conveyors, sensors, and cameras and compare that with customer operations.”
“Single use-case robotics will grow into multi-use robots, like smartphones as a platform for apps,” said Dave Ross, vice president of business development at Brain Corp. For instance, Tenant Co. uses Brain Corp.’s software as a service for its autonomous floor cleaners.
With a robotics platform-as-a-service model and optimized data collection and navigation, a 1,000-lb., $40,000 cleaning robot can provide a return on investment in one year, said Botond Szatmáry, head of technology partnerships at Brain Corp.
Among the new frontiers for AMRs is the great outdoors, including the area between trucks and loading docks.
“We have five large 800,000-sq.-ft. buildings around Louisville, and we’re trying to push the market to outside AGVs,” said GE’s Chase. “We’ve worked with [autonomous mobile robot suppliers] on different applications and environments, and they need to work with internal structures and other robots and vehicles. There needs to be more integration from the dock to line side.”
“Logistics is more than warehousing and involves various levels of outdoor use,” said FedEx’s Prather, who described canopy operations, which are currently forklift-intensive operations but range in temperature, humidity, and the distance for materials to be moved to and from trucks.
“FedEx’s Memphis hub is 1.5 miles across, and the same equipment is used by the airlines, so it presents a huge opportunity,” he said. “We want to suppliers to make AMRs able to handle various conditions, and there will be costs associated with this.”