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Is now the time for a Highway Code for AMRs?

POSTED 09/06/2021

 | By: Onn Fenig

The Drivers Manual. The Rules of the Road. The Highway Code. Whatever you call it, as motoring entered the mainstream, many countries across the world decided that a unified set of rules for operation should be defined to make sure people stayed safe, and traffic kept flowing. 

The automobile has been one of the most important inventions in human history – people could travel, en-masse, to wherever they wanted – democratising access to travel. The resulting economic growth in the last century, as a result, has been huge. But, in the early days of the car, with multiple manufacturers, complex settings for operation (from new highways to ancient cross-country byways), and unfamiliar operators created a challenging landscape. Without careful management, this could have been a recipe for disaster. 

Despite these challenges, just like the car, Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) can serve as a huge catalyst for growth. They can make logistics quicker, more efficient, and safer, as well as freeing human workers from menial, repetitive and sometimes damaging tasks, allowing workers to explore new channels of value creation. 

Today, at the dawn of a new age in indoor mobility, the challenges for the operators of AMRs are not that far away from those faced by the pioneers of motoring. AMRs are made by a large number of companies, all with slightly different specifications and functions. AMRs are expected to work effectively in a range of buildings, from purpose-built settings to existing structures. They have to work safely around a range of obstacles, people working on the floor, machinery operated directly by people, static objects, along with other AMRs. 

A simplistic view would say that if every AMR was identical, settings could operate more efficiently and safely, but we don't all drive around in Ford Model T's. Even the most ardent of brands admit that diversity breeds innovation. As with cars, it shouldn't matter who the manufacturer of an AMR is, as long as all AMRs are making choices based on a set of common rules. 

The solution is simple, and it starts with merely tweaking what is already used in the industry. Fleet managers are currently used to show control rooms various data points on a fleet of AMRs, from charge level to task status, but this software can evolve, and make operations run more smoothly. By adding an extra layer to fleet managers, operations can be optimised. By giving control software the power of an overhead full-floor view, an additional knowledge layer can be added not only to AMRs, but also to the entire facility. This approach would allow the software to take a nuanced view of the situation, allowing planning and rerouting to maximise efficiency, and reduce the potential for collisions. This additional optical information can take fleet management from what in reality is in many cases more like a scheduler with a windo dressing for a lot of unused data, to something that can, using semantic analytics, provide practical insights to proactively manage a vibrant industrial floor .

The overhead view has the potential to allow AMRs of all brands to connect to a central system, allowing them to benefit from a unified data set, as well as benefiting from a diverse range of products.

This new Highway Code model of decision making will allow the deployment of AMRs in a much greater selection of settings. Improved navigation, efficiency, and safety will allow deployment in more dynamic environments. AMRs will be able to draw on their vast functionality to perform tasks in hospitals and shop floors, areas often off-limits for AMRs due to their high pedestrian traffic. The Highway Code allowed cars to move from being the preserve of the urban rich, to the everyday use for normal people across nations. A new way of looking at data and making complex decisions will allow AMRs to thrive outside of purpose-built ‘boxes’. 

Giving AMRs access to this new layer of intelligence can enable them to advance further towards the mainstream, through the capability for enhanced decision making. While today it may seem strange to compare software to the Highway Code, which is an innately human document, AI is much more powerful than many of us can imagine, and we can use learnings from our history to optimise the future. By providing AMRs with unified overhead data we can unleash the next generation of industrial innovation.