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There seems to be a renewed focus on automating the grueling task of unloading trailers. Boston Dynamics revealed its Stretch mobile manipulator at the end of March, while Memphis-based robotics startup Dextrous Robotics recently emerged from stealth with its Chopstick system. Dextrous co-founder Evan Drumwright discussed the system in the RoboBusiness Direct session “Advances in Robotic Picking, Grasping and Manipulation.”
Now the Pickle Robot Company, a Boston-based MIT spinoff that exited stealth in 2019, is joining the fray. Today it unveiled its trailer-unloading robot, Dill, that it claims can “unload a messy, real-world trailers.”
As we pointed out after watching the debut video of Stretch, which can unload 800 cases per hour, all the boxes inside the trucks and on pallets looked identical and were perfectly stacked. Certainly that’s not what trailers look like in the real world when arriving at the loading dock. Stretch’s vision system will no doubt improve over time, but AJ Meyer, co-founder and CEO of Pickle Robot Company, said Dill can already handle “messy trailers” with the “occasional helping hand” of a human.
Of course, demo videos of robots are often staged. But the video below at least shows Dill unloading what appears to be a more realistic trailer setup.
Pickle Robot Company is primarily a software company. Meyer said the key to Dill is that its vision system goes several steps farther than segmentation. Dill uses two Intel L515 LiDARs and processes an image’s pixels into a decision about what package to pick next, where to pick it, and how to approach it. Most of the techniques for the picking aspect were developed on an earlier robot that sorts small packages, which has been in production since November. Dill uses a suction-based gripper.
“The key to the speed is in using the low-level control interfaces to the KUKA KR Series robot (the video shows a KR10, but we also support a larger KR30) and making sure that the sensor processing stack, which includes several neural networks, is not the bottleneck,” Meyer said. “The KR30 version has a similarly beefy gripper that supports 25 kg.
“The KR30-based system can unload at a peak rate of over 1600 pick per hour (PPH). However, you also need to factor in the cycle efficiency – what fraction of the time the robot is doing useful work vs waiting for a supervisor to come handle an irregular package or some other exception. Customers can expect speeds above 1000 PPH for complex applications like in parcel unload.”
Meyer said Dill will be mounted on a wheeled mobile base, similar to IPI/Wynright’s unloader system concept, and will automatically advance. It will need to be manually aligned by an operator with each new trailer.
“Some customers are imagining a dedicated robot per dock door, like in parcel processing, and others will manually drive the mobile base to a specific dock door as needed, as in fulfillment or manufacturing,” he said. “In this latter case, a power outlet must be added near enough to the dock door for the robot arm.”
Pickle Robot Company said the Dill trailer unloading robot will be available to reserve in June 2021 and shipping will begin in 2022.
“We’ve made the robot smart enough to roll up and do the job, eliminating the extensive customization and process overhauling that typically goes along with automation,” Meyer said. “That means we can lower the cost barrier to adoption by as much as 90% and serve customers who might assume robotics is beyond their reach.”
If you want to learn more about Pickle Robot Company, Meyer was a guest on The Robot Report Podcast back in July 2020. Certainly much has changed for the company since then, but Meyer discussed the technology behind the company’s parcel handling robot, how it came up with the company name, what it’s like running a robotics startup, whether robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) is the best approach and much more. You can listen to the interview below starting at the 9:08 mark.