May 03, 2022 | Tony Rigoni
The past two decades have seen tremendous advancements in the capabilities of AMR robotics. One key of enabling performance technologies is the ability for AMR (autonomous mobile robots) to perceive their environment and dynamically react to it–enabling a greater variety of applications with minimal startup time and low costs. Thanks to 3D LiDAR, we are starting to see the 3rd revolution AMR robots that are smart, adaptable, and cost-effective for the modern warehouse.
These advancements in AMR robots come at just the right time to meet a critical need for automation within logistics and supply chain industries. With e-commerce sales sky-high since the beginning of the pandemic and a tight labor market, distribution centers and warehouses are facing the challenge of handling record shipments with fewer people to do the work. Still, more than 80% of warehouses currently have no automation whatsoever. And the warehouses that do have automation are often still using outdated technologies that require extensive, rigid infrastructure that cannot be easily adapted to rapidly changing business requirements.
In this blog post, we will review the past, present and future of AMR navigation and perception–and what it means for the material handling industry.
AMR 1.0 – The Past
In the past, industrial facilities primarily leveraged robots known as Automatic Guided Vehicles or AGVs. These early robots would navigate a warehouse or distribution center following a fixed path using one of a variety of different methods like tape, QR codes, wire, etc. The early AMR could move around and navigate on a fixed path, but had very little sensing of their surrounding environments. LiDAR was sometimes used for pure safety purposes.
These 1st revolution of AMR robots (we’ll call it AMR 1.0) are still in use today in many logistics operations, but they pose some significant problems. For one, AMR 1.0 robots require a rigid infrastructure and a clearly defined path in order to navigate the warehouse. This makes it time-consuming to adapt an existing facility or set up a new space to handle surges in shipment volume. Plus, because the robots can’t “see” anything, they can easily become a workplace safety hazard, for example, by running into people.
Users whose robots fall mostly in this category should strongly consider upgrading to safer, more efficient generations of AMR robots.
AMR 2.0 – The Current State
With the addition of 2D LiDAR sensing, the current generation of AMR robots (AMR 2.0) are able to do natural feature navigation using Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) algorithms. This allows for free navigation but due the 2D single plane of sensing nature, the robot must use multiple sensors or it will suffer blind spots. These AMR robots already offer significant advantages over the previous generation: they have greater safety awareness and can move around more freely within their environment.
However, there are still some limitations. For example, 2D LiDAR can detect virtually anything directly in front of the robot, but low-profile objects on the ground (like a stray 2×4) can be almost impossible to detect. The perception system can also miss upper shelves that are misaligned, causing the robot to crash. Furthermore, AMR 2.0 robots have limited decision-making capabilities. For example, the robot may see a box in its path and stop, but will be unable to make a decision about what to do next.
AMR 3.0 – The Next Generation
Finally, the next emerging generation of AMR robots are powered by 3D LiDAR. Driven by the automotive market and advancements in LiDAR technology for self-driving cars, the cost of 3D LiDAR sensing technology is coming down and becoming more accessible to industrial markets. AMR vendors now can add true 3D virtual perception around their AMR. These robots can not only do natural feature navigation, but can also see potential objects/dangers around them and have the intelligence to avoid the obstacle and pick a better path instead. 3D perception also enables cliff detection, allowing the AMR to perceive the ledge of a loading dock to avoid falling over the edge.
Furthermore, with 3D LiDAR, if multiple robots are navigating the same area, they can make smarter and more efficient decisions like picking a different path instead of stopping and waiting for the other robot to pass–increasing both efficiency and safety. 3D LiDAR makes it possible to identify and classify objects accurately every time and make intelligent decisions based on what the object is: whether it’s another robot or vehicle, a human worker, or a miscellaneous object that has fallen on the ground in the robot’s path. This also enables a continuous flow of productivity by reducing robot inefficiency time (i.e. time spent stopped/waiting for obstacles to move).
Because the robots are truly autonomous in their navigation and collision avoidance, a user can quite literally drop these AMRs into a space and go–with virtually no setup time and very little cost. These next gen 3D LiDAR sensors also have the ability to work both indoors and outside, opening up new opportunities for AMR applications.
The need for more intelligent and efficient robots is here, and the advancements of 3D LiDAR have converged at just the right time in history to meet this demand. By embracing the latest sensing technology, robot vendors can solve many of the challenges warehouse and distribution centers face today. Next gen robots can help relieve labor shortages, increase efficiencies and allow for faster implementation and flexibility for ever changing consumer demands. For more information, visit www.Quanergy.com.