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Autonomous navigation technology of indoor mobile robots has developed considerably, especially in the last decade.

Source: DHL

Relevance to the Future of Logistics

Point-to-Point Transportation

Moving goods between predefined locations within a warehouse is an essential yet highly repetitive process that takes up a lot of warehouse staff time. Using indoor mobile robots is an effective way to save resources, with just one employee overseeing a fleet of transport indoor mobile robots while the rest of the workforce is free to perform more value-adding tasks.

When selecting the appropriate autonomous solution for point-to-point transportation, there is a distinction between three-dimensional (such as an autonomous forklift) and two-dimensional (such as autonomous jack lifts pallet jacks and bin-pulling robots) devices.

Furthermore, with deployments in 3 different regions, DHL has already deployed several of these autonomous forklift fleets. Fleets of autonomous high reach robots that take over the full pallet picking and put away tasks, lifting up to 11m high while also performing double-deep activities.

In addition, there are solutions such as the EffiBOT, a fully autonomous handling robot from the French company Effidence, which also has follow-me mode to follow humans and carry loads of up to 300 kg. This allows the system to be utilized in environments that may still be too complex or dynamic for most AMR technology today.

These examples show there are already many solutions on the market for point-to-point transportation, each capable of significantly reducing the repetitive workload, walking distances, and time of logistics staff.

Loading & Unloading

Loading and unloading containers and trucks with loose load is one of the most physically demanding activities in logistics. Workers are exposed to extreme weather conditions and must repeatedly move heavy goods in confined spaces as quickly as possible to ensure downstream operations can continue uninterrupted.

More and more companies are exploring ways to automate these tasks. To unload pallets from a trailer, Fox Robotics has developed the Automated Trailer Unloading solution. It offers simple implementation, with no need for warehouse management system integration, and simple user interfaces – just one operator can control several robots simultaneously via a tablet.

Boston Dynamics is developing the Stretch robot for a range of different warehouse tasks but initially this indoor mobile robot will enable autonomous unloading of floor-loaded containers and trucks. Stretch consists of three components: a lightweight robotic arm that can lift cartons of up to 50 lb (22.7 kg), a relatively small mobile base designed to easily fit inside trailers and containers, and the perception arm that includes depth sensors and 2D cameras to help the robot identify cartons of different shapes and sizes and provide insights into helping Stretch perceive the environment in which it operates. Future models may be capable of loading, building up pallets, and depalletization.

Today’s deployed solutions are typically for unloading cartons or pallets. However, with advances in robotic software and computer vision capabilities, indoor mobile robots will eventually achieve additional autonomous capabilities such as mobile case picking. Nevertheless, loading and unloading of mixed cases are complex tasks and it will take further research and development before scalable autonomous solutions comes to market.

Order Fulfillment & Assisted Picking

In the unautomated warehouse environment, workers can sometimes be required to walk up to 9 miles each day. This puts an enormous physical burden on workers and at the same time presents an opportunity and a strong argument for the introduction of indoor mobile robots. Assisted picking robots can drive efficiency in the overall order fulfillment process by shortening the distance walked by humans and reducing the time between picks.

There are different types of order fulfillment solution, eg., goods-to-person AMRs, goods-to person solutions or solutions that fall into a zone picking category. A classic goods-to-person AMR solution comes from Geek+ with robots able to pick up and transport inventory shelves to the required picking or pack station where an employee prepares the order for fulfillment without having to walk anywhere.

In zone picking, on the other hand, workers are assigned to a specific predefined warehouse area in which they operate. A prime example of a direct zone picking solution is from Locus Robotics, and DHL recently celebrated its 100 millionth pick using Locus robots. In this Locus solution, totes are placed on robots that travel to pickers in various work zones and then visually indicate the closest pick option for each tote via a screen.

Using AMRs to support order fulfillment allows workers to focus on the accuracy of their picking and significantly diminishes the distance they must cover each day and the required travel time.

Facility Support

According to a study by the European Parliament, more than 8.34 billion USD (8.2 billion EUR) is lost annually in Europe due to cargo crime alone. Globally, 25% of all cargo crimes take place within warehouses.

With increasing sprawl and the resulting higher requirements for security infrastructure, today’s warehouses are at risk. Companies can integrate autonomous security robots (ASRs) to better monitor and control these facilities. Use cases range from automatic license plate recognition to the detection of blacklisted mobile devices or suspicious devices and video surveillance.

The four-legged mobile robot Spot, from Boston Dynamics, can be used as an ASR, equipped with additional cameras and night-vision technology. Designed to walk stairs and uneven terrain, this robot can live monitor different levels in a warehouse or operations facility, and can be operated remotely via a tablet or follow pre-mapped routes.

The use of ASRs in warehouse security and surveillance remains limited but, in future, it is likely that security robots will be used as a deterrent, forming a minor part of a comprehensive security concept.

In addition to security robots, autonomous cleaning robots are increasingly used to support facilities. One example is the Liberty SC60 from the Danish company Nilfisk, a robot specifically designed for cleaning large areas which features a 5 hour maximum run time and utilizes BrainOS, one of the leading AI platforms for autonomous mobile indoor robots, for its navigation.

Inventory Management Automation

According to a study by the global real estate company CBRE, rental costs for industrial properties including warehouses have increased by 25% on average compared to the prices paid at the end of five-year leases expiring in 2021. This means space utilization within the warehouse is becoming increasingly important.

One way to boost storage density is by introducing an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS). These computer-controlled robotic storage systems can be used for autonomous handling, storage, and retrieval of totes or shelves in a warehouse. ASRS solutions, such as the cube-based system from Norwegian company AutoStore, have many advantages over traditional picking solutions. AutoStore’s solution offers a high-density system reducing the required space by a factor of up to 4 and can speed up manual picking by up to 5 times compared to conventional picking.

Although the initial investment for such solutions is relatively high, this can be economically viable, especially when handling large volumes of stock keeping units (SKUs) of slow- and medium-velocity goods, optimizing the throughput and operational efficiencies of the system.

Challenges

There needs to be adequate Wi-Fi or cellular network coverage throughout the facility to guarantee frictionless integration of an AMR solution over a large area, all while meeting the necessary IT security requirements.
Deploying a fleet of numerous automated robot solutions from different manufacturers requires very robust software platform enabling efficient route planning and mission dispatching.
In crowded facilities where many people are working and numerous obstacles block the way, an indoor mobile robot may detect too many obstacles that interfere with its ability to integrate seamlessly into operations.
Indoor mobile robot system integration can be challenging given the wide variety of warehouse management platforms in use.
In an environment where indoor mobile robots operate alongside personnel, a comprehensive safety and risk analysis must be performed due to the added complexity of navigating in close proximity to humans.

This trend should be ACTIVELY monitored, with imminent developments and applications.

Outlook

There are already many different indoor mobile robot use cases and applications currently being scaled in logistics, as can be seen in the example of Locus. However, if you look at the entire indoor mobile robot technology suite, it cannot yet be implemented in every warehouse. Before further solutions can be scaled and used in a variety of applications, the technology must further mature and decision makers must gain confidence in this technology to willingly deploy these solutions in mission-critical tasks. More steps are being taken towards full warehouse orchestration so, in the not-so-distant future, indoor mobile robot solutions together with stationary robotics will start to automate and support a large part of warehouse work.

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