Warehouse Robotics: AMRs, AI & Drones
| By: Emmet Cole, A3 Contributing Editor
With warehouses experiencing long-term labor shortages and increasing demand at the same time, companies are turning to warehouse automation hardware and software solutions to stay competitive in an uncertain and challenging economic landscape.
The U.S. warehouse and transportation industry alone had a record 490,000 openings in July 20211, a gap that is believed to have widened in the intervening period. Meanwhile, in 2020, global retail e-commerce sales2 amounted to USD4.28 trillion. That figure is expected to reach USD5.4 trillion this year.
And so, from components such as grippers to machine vision systems through energy and power automation solutions, software and hardware from A3 members is in high demand. According to the latest post-pandemic market report from LogisticsIQ3, the warehouse automation market, which was valued at USD15 billion in 2019, is expected to double to USD30 billion by 2026, at a CAGR of 14%.
These numbers are no surprise since warehouse automation has been shown to increase productivity and throughput while improving efficiency and ergonomics, empowering companies to thrive even under difficult conditions.
In this article, we’ll look at three examples of leading-edge warehouse automation solutions developed by A3 members, drawn from three categories: autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), artificial intelligence, and drones.
Mobile robots are go
The cost and availability of labor are just two of the main drivers for AMR adoption in warehouse and logistics environments, says Parker Conroy, Director of Marketing for the AMR sector at Omron Automation.
“We see such good adoption due to the numerous additional benefits to putting AMRs into warehouse environments. These include traceability, improved reliability, and increased throughput,” explains Conroy.
Traceability is critical in the medical and food sectors, but also in semiconductor production, for example, where delivering a pod to the wrong tool could easily result in the loss of half a million dollars’ worth of computer chips.
Omron has developed the HD and LD series of AMRs for heavy and lightweight-to-medium cargos, respectively. These state-of-the-art mobile robots relieve workers from repetitive and unergonomic warehouse tasks and where workers are not available, provide the autonomous materials transport capabilities required to keep operations running smoothly.
In 2020, Danish manufacturer VOLA deployed a fleet of nine Omron LD-90 AMRs to create a fully coordinated solution for autonomous materials transport throughout its factory. The deployment improved overall throughput, production flexibility, and working conditions, while providing the flexibility required to enable quick and easy changes to the factory layout.
Omron’s robots are both leading edge and proven in the most demanding warehouse environments, says Parker, but one of the most ingenious aspects of Omron’s mobile robot offerings is its Fleet Manager software, which “stitches it all together.” Fleet Manager simplifies integration through an intuitive interface, lowering the barriers to automation adoption and reducing Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for the deployment. In addition, Fleet Manager provides fleet management functionality, enabling scores of AMRs to operate safely and effectively, even in busy traffic environments. Charging management and advanced navigation add additional efficiencies.
The brains of the operation
Artificial intelligence (AI) empowers warehouse automation, from AMRs to grippers through bin-picking systems and automated inspection cells to perform more effectively than ever before.
Brain Corporation is the company behind BrainOS, a cloud-connected AI software platform for autonomous mobile robots. The BrainOS software, which is deployed on Brain Corp’s delivery tugs and robotic floor cleaners, enables AMRs to navigate autonomously, learn from user demonstration and to process sensor data collected from usage to avoid obstacles.
Traditional industrial robots and automated guided vehicles require factories to be built around them, meaning a high amount of infrastructure cost, development, alongside extensive safety restrictions, says John Black, Senior Vice President, Product Engineering at Brain Corp.
“But now, new AMRs with more advanced sensor technology, compute power and AI are enabling significant changes in how facilities can operate. BrainOS-powered AMRs can safely and efficiently navigate dynamic warehouse environments even those with limited infrastructure accommodations in place for automation,” says Black, who notes that the system’s intuitive programming interface is designed for easy set up and operation by non-technical operators.
AI allows AMRs to make decisions autonomously, but without sacrificing safety. This frees industrial environments to safely open their floorspaces, making layouts and workflow more productive and efficient, says Black.
In November 2021, Brain Corp. announced that its fleet of autonomous floor cleaners and delivery tugs had officially covered 100 billion square feet since they launched in 2018, equating to a saving of more than 6.6 million labor hours in its customers’ facilities.
Meet DroneDog: Warehouse Security Robot
With trillions of dollars of goods moving through the world’s warehouses, security is an ongoing concern. Like other segments of the warehouse industry, security firms are facing labor challenges.
“Hiring is difficult right now and many guarding services contracts don't provide sufficient financial and career growth opportunities to the guards. This means that hiring for the job is difficult and turnover is high. By design, robots are manufactured to be predictable and, with routine maintenance, can be a very reliable asset. These robotic systems are designed to automate the dull and dangerous functions of perimeter security while empowering humans for higher-level tasking like remote robotic vehicle operation and monitoring. For this reason, we have a team of operators that are remotely controlling and monitoring security robotics 24/7 for our customers,” says Ryan Hodgens, Director of Marketing at automated robotic perimeter security,” says Ryan Hodgens, Director of Marketing at automated perimeter security specialists Asylon.
Asylon recently announced a unique pairing of its aerial security drones with ‘DroneDog’ --a modified version of Spot, the illustrious four-legged mobile robot platform developed by Boston Dynamics.
The drone’s main uses are for rapid response and routine patrols, explains Hodgens: “As a rapid response vehicle, the drone can be up in the air and get eyes-on-target anywhere at a warehouse in about 4 minutes. This means you can more quickly respond to an emergency situation or clear false alarms. For routine patrols, the drone has also been seen as a deterrent for crimes in and around a property —day or night.”
Asylon, which counts global brands like FedEx and Ford among its customers, has successfully flown its drones in extreme weather conditions. But weather –and FAA regulations—can be a limiting factor on drone operations in some situations. This is where DroneDog with its IP54 environmental protection can take over in certain conditions. And, unlike traditional wheeled or tracked robots, the quadrupedal robot has little difficulty navigating uneven terrain.
“DroneDog is ground-based and is designed to complement and fill gaps in our aerial drone’s coverage. Both are tools that serve different functions. By working closely with our security customers, we've seen how DroneDog can be the baseline for routine observe and report patrols while the drone adds significant value by acting as a deterrent and rapid response vehicle. The complementary capabilities of the air and ground assets make for an unbeatable combo,” explains Hodgens.
DroneDog can feed video to a command center staffed by humans. The system has a payload of 14 kg (30.86 lbs), providing scope for end users to add additional sensors and cameras, depending on their security requirements.
From unique drone-quadruped teams to AMRs and artificial intelligence-powered material handling systems, robotics hardware and software developed by A3 members is helping the warehouse industry transition into the future.
“The warehouse industry is changing,” says Omron’s Conroy. “It’s transitioning from a reliance on manual labor to more automated and flexible forms of intralogistics. There are lots of benefits in terms of increasing productivity and simplifying how your intralogistics works, but more than anything, this is a rising tide that’s lifting the industries around you, and you need to get on the boat to stay competitive.”