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The Big Picture: Navigation Gets a Reboot for Automatic Vehicles

POSTED 05/21/2018

Established guidance systems can now have been joined by new game-changing technologies. Instead of simply moving from Point A to Point B, AGVs and other automatic vehicles now can determine their own route and easily adapt to changes on the facility floor. That opens up a new world that might fit your future.

There’s a battle underway to win hearts and minds in the world of automatic guided vehicles (AGVs). In a word, it’s all about navigation.

Not long ago, every AGV system was guided by wires buried in the floor, laser targets on the walls, tape on the floor or in-floor magnets. But those established navigation systems have now been joined by on-board sensors including stereo cameras and LiDAR, two-dimensional lasers, three-dimensional lasers and a system called SLAM.

The impact of these new navigation systems has already been considerable, and that story is still young. Quite simply, AGVs that have always traveled a set path following a physical trail can now travel any path of their choosing without any physical trail at all. For the latest navigation systems, it’s all in the software, on-board sensors and lasers—talk about liberating.

“About 95% of what matters with AGVs is below the surface,” says Garry Koff, president of Savant Automation. In other words, while most people focus on the vehicle itself, that’s only a small part of what makes AGVs valuable automation partners in distribution centers and on manufacturing floors. Today, the most important aspect of that 95% is how a vehicle gets from its starting point to its destination.

“Navigation is the core of automated vehicles today,” says Simon Drexler, director of product development at Otto. “If the navigation stack is not capable, then everything else falls apart.”

That said, Savant does not offer any of the new navigation systems. Instead, it offers in-floor magnet guidance also known as inertial guidance. And Koff, along with many other AGV veterans, has some issues with the up-and-coming guidance systems. Common system challenges are throughput needs, repeatability, precision and fleet coordination as the technology itself evolves.

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