Robotics part of the new normal in freight and logistics

freight robots

By Cate Hull

As business and technology continue a rapid advance to the future, it is a given that robotics will play an integral part of the way we do business on a go forward basis.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the freight and logistics space, where robots already play a significant role.

With E-commerce and an on-demand economy continuing to grow worldwide, a new generation of autonomous mobile robots are helping companies deal with rapid expansion and demand.

Last year, a report by Tractica Research estimated that the worldwide sales of warehousing and logistics robots will reach $22.4 billion by the end of 2021, with robot unit shipments reaching 620,000 units per year by 2021.

According to roboticsbusinessreview.com, there are more than 50 existing and emerging firms vying for customers within this space. The site looked at three mini-case studies of companies developing capabilities with autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs, to solve problems for logistics and e-commerce companies.

Case Study 1: Fetch Robotics

One of the early pioneers in this field is San Jose, Calif.-based Fetch Robotics, which has developed collaborative AMRs for locating, tracking, and moving inventory in warehouse and logistics facilities. The Fetch system includes a mobile robot base, modular attachments, and a unique cloud-based software system.

This three-pronged approach enables warehouses to achieve automation “in hours and days, as opposed to weeks and months,” said Joe Lau, director of product marketing at Fetch.

“They free up the human workforce from these mundane tasks and allow them to focus on more sophisticated, value-added activities,” he said.

Case Study 2: InVia Robotics

California-based inVia Robotics develops a range of AMRs that operate together for several warehouse tasks, including collaborative goods-to-person tote retrieval for pickers, inventory replenishment, cycle counting, and item verification.

Lior Elazary, co-founder and CEO at inVia, said its integrated robotic management system (RMS) provides users with complete control over the robots. This enables them to decide which tasks are most important.
“Utilizing sophisticated AI and vision algorithms, our robots are able to adapt to the existing warehouse environment,” Elazary said. “This means that our robot can work with all kinds of different totes, as well as different shelves.”

The process is controlled via its robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) software, he added, letting companies optimize warehouses “without disrupting the current operational ecosystem.”

Case Study 3: Vecna Robotics

Cambridge, Mass.-based Vecna Robotics develops several autonomous mobile robots based on a novel “autonomy stack.” Vecna CEO Dan Patt said this means the robots can “take input from many different kinds of sensors and fuse this information together to understand where they are in the world, and how they can execute their tasking.”

“We are also unique in having a full spectrum of robots that handle an array of tasks, and the technology that orchestrates their collaboration in real work settings, making us a full spectrum automation provider” in logistics, distribution, fulfilment, and other material-handling workflows, Patt said.

A recent highly publicized example is at FedEx, where Vecna AMRs are used to convey and sort oversized packages at ground distribution hubs. Patt said this application is particularly demanding, as it requires operations in a “mixed human-driven, pedestrian, and robot traffic set.”

And this week we received word that Google has rebooted its robotics program under Vincent Vanhoucke, a principal scientist at Google. Vanhoucke, a French-born researcher, was a key figure in the development of Google Brain, the company’s central artificial intelligence lab. His team recently moved into a new lab on Google’s main campus in Mountain View, California.

According to a piece in the New York Times, the company is developing ways for robots to learn skills on their own, like sorting through a bin of unfamiliar objects or navigating a warehouse filled with unexpected obstacles.

Google’s new lab is indicative of a broader effort to bring so-called machine learning to robotics. Researchers are exploring similar techniques at places like the University of California, Berkeley, and OpenAI, the artificial intelligence lab founded by the Silicon Valley kingpins Elon Musk and Sam Altman.

Researchers believe these machines could work in warehouses and distribution centers run by companies like Amazon and UPS. Today, humans sort through items that move in and out of distribution centers. A system like Google’s could automate at least part of the process, though it is unclear when it will be ready for commercial use. Amazon, which has already deployed other kinds of robotics in its distribution centers, is interested in this kind of technology.

But many robotics experts warn that moving this kind of machine learning into the real world will be difficult. Technology that does well in the lab often breaks down inside a distribution center because it can’t deal with unexpected objects it hasn’t seen before or tasks that require movements it has never tried.

Cate Hull is the CEO of FreightExchange, a freight and logistics company based in Sydney.