Industrial automation leader ABB and artificial intelligence startup Covariant today announced that they are working to jointly bring AI-enabled robots to market, starting with a fully autonomous system for e-commerce order fulfillment.
Covariant emerged from stealth last month, and The Robot Report named it one of “10 robotics startups to watch in 2020.” Pieter Abbeel, co-founder, chief scientist, and president of Covariant (formerly Embodied Intelligence) spoke at RoboBusiness 2018.
ABB identifies robotics, AI opportunity
The companies said that they share a vision for robots that can learn and improve while working alongside people. ABB said that it identified opportunities for AI-enabled robots in applications including logistics, warehousing, and parcel and mail sorting. Global revenues in e-commerce could increase by more than 50% within the next five years, rising from 1.7 trillion Euros ($1.84 trillion U.S.) in 2019 to 2.6 trillion Euros ($2.82 trillion) in 2024, predicted Statista.
The growing demand for e-commerce order-fulfillment and the complex nature of the process offers unique potential for intelligent automation, said ABB. The market is experiencing a steady 4% to 5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) and will reach a value of 51.3 billion Euros ($55.65 billion) by 2021, according to Beroe Inc.
Most warehouse operations are labor-intensive, and the industry has struggled with recruiting and retaining staffers for picking and packing. Robots are ideally suited to repetitive tasks, but they have lacked the intelligence to identify and handle tens of thousands of constantly changing products in a typical dynamic warehouse operation, said Zurich-based ABB.
ABB’s B&R unit last year announced the integration of ABB’s robots into its machine control portfolio.
Competition leads to Covariant
ABB last year launched a global competition to assess 20 AI start-ups in 26 real-world picking, packing, and sorting challenges to see if the technology was mature. The company also sought a technology partner to co-develop a robust AI solution capable of supporting autonomous handling of an infinite variety of items.
Berkeley, Calif.-based Covariant said its Brain allows robots to see, reason, and act in the world around them, completing tasks too complex and varied for traditionally programmed robots. The company’s software uses reinforcement learning so that robots can adapt to new tasks through trial and error and therefore constantly broaden the range of objects they can pick.
Advancing AI and applications
“Our partnership with Covariant is part of our strategy to expand into new growth sectors such as distribution and e-commerce and to leverage the scaling potential in these fields,” stated Sami Atiya, president of ABB’s Robotics and Discrete Automation business. “It perfectly complements our offering and adds to our aim to be the number one choice in robotics solutions for our customers. Through the combination of artificial intelligence with our robots, we are opening an entire new field of opportunities and applications for a variety of industries.”
“If you want to advance artificial intelligence, we now need to take it out of the laboratory and apply it to the real world,” said Peter Chen, co-founder and CEO of Covariant. “We are delighted to be able to work with ABB to create AI Robotics solutions for customers worldwide, benefitting from ABB’s nearly five decades of domain knowledge and expertise in deploying automation systems into the most demanding industrial environments,”
The first installation of the ABB and Covariant AI-enabled system is already deployed at Active Ants, part of the bpost group and a leading provider of e-commerce fulfillment services for Web businesses in Utrecht in the Netherlands.
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