By Mike Oitzman / a couple of years ago
Indoor warehouse for mobile robot application

Which Mobile Robot Application is for you?

In this next section, we’ll explore each commercial mobile robot application in detail. These different applications areas are all currently being served by one or more AMR manufacturers. 

For now, let’s dive into each specific market segment and understand the problems being solved by mobile robots in each area.

We’ll cover the specific robot capabilities in a later chapter.


Warehousing and Intralogistics Applications


The warehousing and intralogistics space is currently one of the most publicized application areas for AMR’s. There several AMR manufacturers offering a solution for mobile robot applications within the warehouse. The most famous vendor in the last 10 years was KIVA, who developed a unique solution for bringing goods-to-man. KIVA was acquired by Amazon for $775M in 2012, and Amazon took the solution off the market to give them a competitive edge over other eCommerce providers. As a result this opened up the market for new entrants in the warehousing and intralogistics space.

Class of applications

There are a variety of mobile robot applications within the warehouse and for use in intralogistic applications.
The central requirements of these applications are moving packages around the facility.

Applications include:

  • Goods-to-person
  • Unit loads
  • Pick-by-light
  • Put-by-light
  • Pack out
  • Cross docking

Unit load and pallet movement

There is a new class of AMR’s emerging capable of moving unit loads and pallets around the facility. These vehicles are typically larger and capable of moving larger cargo mass around the facility. One of the key issues currently with moving unit loads is that they currently require manual operation to load and unload the vehicles at the end point of their movement. Be it load/unloading boxes or pallet (with a fork truck), the manual operation impacts the ROI for the application. None the less, fork trucks & tug trains are a perennial nuisance on the warehouse floor, responsible for innumerable accidents each year. Automating unit load movement with AMR’s are one way to improve safety in the warehouse and reduce insurance costs. Vehicles in this class need to be able to move a minimum of 500 kg. 

eCommerce Applications

eCommerce applications are a subset of the warehouse. What’s unique about eCommerce mobile robot applications is the speed at which product needs to be picked and packed to meet customer expectations. Also typical of eCommerce applications is that product is typically stored in the warehouse by Stock Keeping Unit (SKU). Each bin contains individual product with a specific SKU. “Pickers” are human workers who run throughout the facility retrieving (picking) specific SKU’s for each customer order. There is a class of mobile robot emerging to solve the bin picking application, however several AMR vendors now have viable solutions to market to help automate the space between pickers in the eisles and the packaging (pack-out) of a completed order.

Pack Out support

Key to this application is enabling the human pickers to be more efficient. Thus, mobile robots can carry a bin or box with a specific customer order and drive around the warehouse to the specific location of the SKU to be picked. Once a customers order is completely picked, the AMR delivers the tote or box to the pack out area of the warehouse.

Autonomous Picking Robots

The AMR solutions which are offering picking solutions function in a variety of ways. The underlying requirement for the picking AMR’s is that they require a more organized warehouse to enable the mobile robot arm or mechanism to effectively retrieve product from it’s storage location. 

Goods to person / ASRS

Goods to person is a novel application for AMR’s. In this application, the vehicles bring a tote or shelf of specific SKU to the packers who scan and pick the appropriate number of product(s) for a customer order. The packers do this without having to leave their station or walk down the aisles. This has also been called an “automated storage and retrieval system” (ASRS). Essentually the robots either pick up and move entire shelving units OR they pick up and return totes (with specific SKU) to/from the warehouse shelves. KIVA System was the first vendor to bring a novel solution to market.

There are several vendors in this space:

  • InVia Robotics
  • Grey Orange
  • Swisslog
  • Hitachi

Industrial Applications

Mobile robots can make an immediate impact on the operation of the manufacturing floor. Because AMR’s operate safely in the same space as their human counterparts, AMR’s can automate the movement of material onto the manufacturing floor as well as the movement of finished goods, waste material. AMR’s can also replace classic conveyor systems to effectively move work in progress (WIP) between assembly stations. In the use case of WIP, the AMR can selectively move to different assembly or process stations depending on the build recipe for the components being assembled. For example, AMR’s are already effectively doing this in the semiconductor fab, handling the silicon wafers between various process steps.

Alternatives

There are several alternatives to using AMR’s on the manufacturing floor. In these mobile robot applications, AMR’s can provide a positive return on investment when replacing these classic solutions:

  • AGVs
  • Hand carts
  • Conveyors
  • Tug’s
  • Fork trucks


A variety of applications

There are a variety of applications for AMR’s on the factory floor. These applications automate the movement of material throughout a manufacturing floor and may include moving everything from components and raw material to removing scrap and waste. The list of industrial applications include:

  • Line side replenishment of raw material and components for assembly
  • KANBAN, just in time
  • Work in process (WIP) movement of assemblies
  • Supermarket to line
  • Finished goods to inventory
  • Kitting
  • Waste & scrap removal
  • Unit load movement
  • Pallet movement
  • Security

Delivery

The technology with drives all types of mobile robots has evolved to the point that it’s now possible to leverage mobile robots for delivery of items to consumers. This report will only cover wheeled mobile robots and leave the discussion of aerial drones for another report.

Applications

The applications for automated delivery range from well constrained indoor environments such as hotel delivery to vehicles designed to operate on public spaces such as sidewalks. The idea to use mobile robots for “last mile” delivery of products and packages to consumers has been a long time coming.

The most successful company in this space is Savioke. They were the first solution in the market place. In that time, Savioke has continued to engineer and evolve their solution, improving the robustness of the robot with each iteration.

The specific application of delivering packages in the “last mile” has been one of the last to emerge and remains a developing application space. There are a few early entrants into this space including Marble and Starship Enterprises. The difficulty with operating on public sidewalks is that the environment is not robot friendly. There are many things which can interrupt the robot delivery task. The other inherent risk is theft of both the robot and the cargo. Finally, while the early entrants have started their beta deployments in large cities such as San Francisco and other metro areas, it’s still remains to be seen how these vendors will operate in rural areas where there are no sidewalks. It may well be that mobile AMR’s are the solution for urban areas and aerial delivery is the solution for rural areas.

Vendors include:

  • Savioke
  • Marble
  • Starship enterprises

Security Robots

Automation of security tasks is an emerging application for mobile robots. This is an interesting and obvious use of autonomous mobile vehicles because the robots can effectively enhance and extend the reach of an existing security team. Thus this application has a strong ROI. Security robots are typically outfitted with a payload of sensors including cameras, microphones, sonar and other sensors to gather information about the robots surroundings.

The advantage of a mobile security robot is that is can traverse the facility autonomously, making the rounds in lieu of a human security guard. The presence of the mobile robot is a crime deterrent and an extension of the human security team. Sensors on the mobile robot look and listen for anomalous signals and alert the human team when it detects something. In some cases, the use of an infrared camera on the robot can detect a human hiding in a dark area, where they would be invisible to the human eye.

Security robots can be programmed to follow a route throughout the facility. They can use the elevator to move between floors. They can operate both after hours in a dark facility, or to operate safely with humans in the workspace.

Security robots are now being deployed to operate in environments such as office buildings, malls, residential apartment buildings, schools, hospitals and manufacturing facilities. Some robots are capable of navigating both indoors and outdoors.

Data gathering machine

A sub feature of many security robots is the capability to gather data as they travel throughout the facility. The obvious use is to ensure that there is no criminal activity, however mobile security robots can also be outfitted with a variety of sensors which can help facilities management with some of their tasks. This can include:

  • Logging license plates on vehicles in the parking lot
  • Mapping WiFi signal strength throughout the facility
  • Checking environmental conditions like temperature and humidity
  • “Sniffing” for chemical leaks, spills and other facility dangers
  • Looking for burned out light bulbs
  • Checking floors & rooms for occupancy

Military/Police

Mobile robots are quickly becoming a valuable tool for the military and police to use in enhancing their situation awareness and to reduce risk for individual soldiers and policeman. We’re covering both applications in this discussion because the applications are actually pretty similar. Also, state and local police departments are benefitting from the investment made into military robotic solutions as the technology matures and can be made cost effectively for police departments.

There are several applications in which mobile robots are being used in military and policing operations. In this report we are only going to discuss ground based AMR’s and leave the discussion of aerial and drone mobile robots for a different report.

In most cases, the mobile robots used in military and policing situations are tele-operated, rather than completely autonomous. This enables the soldier or policeman (the pilot) to remain safely behind barriers while the mobile robot is run closer to the combatant or perpetrator, providing the robot pilot with the ability to see, hear and sense the situation.

Applications for mobile robots include:

  • Scouting
  • Bomb and IED detection and remote detonation
  • Equipment and personnel recovery

Vendors include:

  • Blackdog Robotics
  • Endeavor Robotics

Retail and inventory

The applications for robots in the retail space have only matured in the last year(since 2016). However, there are several well defined application areas where mobile robots can help improve retail operations by automating data collection or provided enhanced customer support.

Applications

One of the early entrants into this application space was Fellow Robotics. Fellow partnered with Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) to deploy the OSHbot as a mobile customer support agent. The OSHbot is designed to greet shoppers at the entrance to the store and then help the customer locate a specific part or product in the store, including leading the customer to the location/aisle where the part was located. OSHbot uses a touchscreen to interact with shoppers as they communicate the item that they are looking for.

Planograms and inventory management

The more lucrative application for mobile robots in the retail space is in helping to automate inventory management and planogram verification. Retail stores invest many hours each day to manage inventory and restock shelves for their customers. Mobile robots can be used to autonomously traverse the store, up and down each aisle, and meticulously check the current inventory of items on shelves. This application is being done with either video cameras (to image and track product on shelves and product SKU’s) or with radios to track Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags on products.

The other big application for robotics in retail stores is doing planogram verification. A planogram is the store map which defines where each of the suppliers product will be shelved. Suppliers pay additional fees to have their products positioned at specific locations on the aisles. End caps (the space at the entrance/end of an aisle) are prime real estate in a store, and suppliers run marketing programs and subsidize the location of their products into these locations. These marketing programs have specific start and end dates (think Superbowl Sunday preparate). Furthermore, the suppliers typically employ personnel to visit each store in the region to verify that the store manager is fulfilling the contract to place product on the aisle per the contracted planogram. By deploying mobile robots, armed with high resolution cameras, store managers can quickly and easily map the store aisles and produce a snapshot of the inventory placement as a record for the product suppliers. This data helps resolve the verification step and can be done completely online (or in the cloud). In some cases the same mobile robot can be used for both inventory and planogram use cases.

Vendors:

  • Fellow Robotics
  • Bossa Nova
  • Simbe Robotics
  • Fetch

Retail Mobile Robot Lineup

​Construction Robotics

​Automating construction sites is an emerging application for autonomous mobile robots. The construction industry is a conservative industry, and not quick to adopt high technology solutions. This is changing, and several robotics companies are emerging to help solve the skilled labor shortage which is plaguing the construction world.

Commerical real estate development is a healthy business. Speed of execution and achieving promised project cycles are two key factors which are driving the adoption of automation solutions in this market.

​There are primarily three applications which are getting attention from automation vendors:

  1. ​Remote Site sensing - using robotics to allow remote management and design teams to track progress of construction. Saves time and travel to reach remote sites, which providing a first hand view of the project progress.
  2. Site Preparation - using automated earth moving vehicles to prepare the foundation and site for the construction. Vehicle operators operate the machines either onsite or remotely.
  3. Building Layout - using AMRs to transfer the digital building parameters directly from the Building Information Management (BIM) system to the foundation.

Vendors:

  • Built Robotics
  • Dusty Robotics
  • Scaled Robotics

Construction Mobile Robot Lineup

​Research Platforms for Mobile Robotics

​As the popularity of autonomous mobile robots grows, it is attracting attention at the university level from research labs. New research is expanding the capabilities of these machines including the application of artificial intelligence in the areas of navigation, localization and operation.

​The basic hardware and electronics design is no longer the issue as research is now focused on the higher level cognitive evolution of mobile robotics. As a result, the market for supplying affordable and high quality mobile robot platform is emerging.

In this section you will find vendors who deliver hardware platforms designed specifically for use in research labs or as prototype mobile robot platforms in commercial applications. The majority of these suppliers offer their platforms with a ROS operating system, so that it's easy to get started and quickly begin modifying the operation without a steep learning curve.

Vendors:

  • AAI Canada
  • Agility Robotics
  • Asimov Robotics
  • ​Botnuvo
  • ​Clearpath Robotics
  • Fetch Robotics
  • Halodi Robotics
  • Husarion
  • Innok Robotics
  • Robotnik
  • Tokyo Rob​otics
  • Ubiquity Robotics

​Research Mobile Robot Lineup

About the author

Mike Oitzman

Mike Oitzman brings 25 years of product management and product marketing experience to the role of publisher and editor for Mobile Robot Guide. Mike is a respected expert in the mobile robot market and is a frequent panel leader and speaker at events and tradeshows.


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