Flexible factories, automated ports, and smart warehouses are leaving a great deal of value on the table: the full promise of productivity gains and cost savings won’t be achieved until we blast through the limitations of legacy navigation.
Today, I am so proud to share that Humatics is releasing our Spatial Intelligence Platform to break through these barriers across a wide range of industrial applications. From precision crane positioning, to tool tracking on the manufacturing line, to vehicle tracking and platooning, our powerful new alternative delivers scalable microlocation that improves flexibility, efficiency, and productivity.
Humatics’ pioneering system of KinetIQ™ radio-frequency devices synthesizes time-of-flight measurements with inertial sensors to determine the 3D location of an automated guided vehicle, or AGV. Stationary units, or “Beacons,” can be easily installed in a constellation on ceilings, walls, or poles, where they enable a location fix on mobile “Rangers” mounted on the AGV, with precision of 2 cm at distances up to 500 meters.
Depiction of a KinetIQ™ microlocation system deployment
The Immense Value in Moving Stuff
Amazon’s little orange shelf-toting bots today drive products around dozens of its fulfillment centers. Their cousins—automated pallet trucks, tow vehicles, straddle carriers, and similar vehicles—comprise an AGV market that’s expected to grow to $2.5 billion by 2027. Moving all this stuff is incredibly useful. It is at the forefront of what some are calling “Industry 4.0”, which is poised to revolutionize operations at shipping warehouses, container terminals, and airports.
AGVs are transforming manufacturing, where assembly lines’ core technology still derives from 19th-century railroads. Now imagine if instead of a train car, every product rides on its own mobile robot as it travels down the line. The assembly “line” becomes unchained from the railroad: flexible, changeable in software, able to fit into unusually shaped spaces, even able to transition from indoors to outdoors. This vision is achievable today, if only the AGVs could know where they are.
Most AGVs are still guided by the same stuff that played your cassette tapes back in the 1980s—magnetic tape, stuck to the floor, hard to change and scraped bare by traffic. Awkwardly, operators respond by gouging tracks into the concrete floor, protecting the tape but making it even harder to change. Other AGVs (including the Kiva bots) rely on 1990s technology—barcode stickers pasted all around to create a trail of breadcrumbs, but they’re almost as inflexible. If you want to change a robot’s path, you have to move all the fiducials and re-map the environment. Plus they don’t work outdoors or in dirt or dust.
Lasers help, a bit. LiDAR-equipped AGVs can roam more freely than vehicles that depend on tape or fiducials. But LiDAR has its own downsides, and is now entering its own trough of disillusionment. It only navigates in mapped environments, so whenever the layout or contents of those environments change, operators must painfully remap. Unlike the costly, high-end systems on autonomous cars, industrial LiDAR systems are blinded by daylight, even the light coming through a window or an open door. And at current prices—around $4,000 to $5,000 per robot—even the least expensive indoor LiDAR systems can be cost-prohibitive.
Outdoors, some automated tugs and carriers use GPS. But the classic problems that limit the usefulness of satellite navigation for autonomous driving also afflict AGVs. GPS is imprecise and degrades in areas with walls or lots of metal objects (a good description of almost any shipping terminal or holding area), confused by its own signal reflections.
Humatics microlocation systems work indoors and outdoors, in any weather conditions, and are robust to the multipath reflections that confuse GPS and other RF-based systems. They are easy to install, retrofittable to existing AGV fleets, and flexible: a robot’s path can be reprogrammed remotely in software or can respond dynamically to moving obstacles.
Microlocation adds value in challenging situations. For instance, in the logistics and warehousing industry, loading docks and holding areas are all unstructured places, where fork trucks arrange pallets in stacks that shift by the minute. Each time a Ranger-equipped autonomous fork truck leaves a pallet in a specific spot, it reports that action back to Humatics’ Spatial Intelligence Platform, building a continuously-updated virtual map that safely guides the next truck into the area. Improved accuracy saves time.
In autonomous cargo handling, robotic tractor tows must pass through unstructured, constantly-changing environments to get carts from an indoor handling system out to a waiting airplane. LiDAR can’t handle that, for the reasons I mentioned above. But tarmacs and tows can easily be outfitted with all-weather daytime/nighttime Beacons and Rangers, enabling seamless indoor/outdoor navigation.
Humatics microlocation will also finally enable truly flexible factories. Automotive suppliers are investing heavily in modular production lines. But every time they reconfigure the assembly floor to accommodate a new production run, they must re-tape their line-based guidance systems. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and, frankly, not very flexible. With microlocation, suppliers can reroute AGV paths in minutes.
Once microlocation is deployed, it supports other applications as well, such as tool tracking, crane positioning, drone navigation, and rail signaling. It will even connect factories to their “digital twin” simulations, ever linking the digital and physical worlds.
Humatics-enabled AGVs today can navigate from factory floors to outdoor staging areas. Once an AGV is able to navigate the parking lot, it’s only a matter of time until it heads onto the road. In all weather, day and night, microlocation-enabled AGVs will merge with driverless cars and trucks, ever more efficiently connecting the supply chain to the production line.
Useful autonomy requires robust connections to the environment. Humatics microlocation connects mobile platforms and the products they carry to the industrial, transportation, and logistics infrastructure that brings value to the customer.
Humatics launched our KinetIQ family of microlocation sensors and software on September 10 at IMTS 2018 in Chicago. We will ship the KinetIQ 100 in Q4 this year with global availability. The KinetIQ 300 and KinetIQ OS are expected to ship in early 2019 in North America, with additional geographies becoming available during the following months.