Some autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can summon elevators, get in and go to a new floor. But like a group of riders too polite to be the first to step out when the doors open, robots from different vendors will be logjammed waiting for the others to leave once the car reaches their destination. Because of that, a facility has to dedicate separate elevators for robots from each vendor.
“We have a customer in Singapore who said, ‘Look, I’ve got robots from three different vendors in my hospital. I want to add a fourth that does a new thing and that none of these does [but] I don’t have any more free elevators’,” said Open Robotics CEO Brian Gerkey. “And that’s what’s stopping them from adding robots.”
Gerkey’s anecdote highlights the issue of interoperability, an emerging challenge seen not only in hospitals with elevator-riding AMRs but also in warehouses and manufacturing plants. According to “Interoperability to Increase Robot Adoption,” a panel discussion Gerkey participated in at MD&M West in Anaheim last year, a facility may be home to multiple robotic solutions, each with its own approach to sharing information and without the ability to easily share data among robots from different vendors. This makes implementing cohesive robotic systems an elusive goal.
To help make systems with different types of robots possible, MassRobotics, Boston—a nonprofit innovation hub for robotics and connected devices—addressed the problem in 2020 by forming the AMR Interoperability Working Group. In addition to Gerkey, the MD&M panel included other working group members.
The group issued its first standard in May 2021. It allows robots of different types to share status information and operational conventions, or “rules of the road,” so they can work together more cohesively on a warehouse or factory floor, according to a MassRobotics press release. The standard also enables the creation of operational dashboards so managers can gain insights into fleet productivity across mixed-vendor teams of AMRs. The new standard is reportedly being tested at a FedEx facility in Memphis.
The state of the art in AMRs is that “a whole bunch of startups” are making different kinds of robots that do one thing and do it well, said CEO Jason Walker, Waypoint Robotics, Nashua, N.H.
“As much as I think our robots are the best thing ever, they’re not a forklift robot, they’re not a pallet mover,” he said. “And so, you have a bunch of almost single-purpose, certainly single-domain robots. And that means that you’ve got a heterogeneous fleet of robots in your facility to solve all the different problems you have.”
Walker added a hopeful note about getting different robots to work together.
“Because a lot of them are built on ROS (a robot operating system developed by Willow Garage and overseen by Open Robotics), there is an underpinning of commonality to them,” he said. “And because of the MassRobotics interoperability standard, there’s a way forward, where everybody can coexist in the same facility.”
“From the customer side, I’m thinking even bigger than when we talked about the interoperability between vehicles (robots),” said panelist Bob Bollinger, technical director for applied robotics innovation at Procter & Gamble. “I’m looking at that whole solution set of how do we get the vehicle to work in the environment, with the higher-order systems, and the other systems that it needs to interface with.”
That deployment and integration of the robots to work with equipment on a factory floor, a manufacturing engineering system or a warehouse management system in P&G buildings is more costly than the robots themselves, he said.
Another issue vexing users is robot traffic.
“If I’ve got a robotic floor scrubber and it will be deployed, fully autonomous, it’s going to build its own map,” said panel moderator Tom Ryden, executive director of MassRobotics. “And I’ve got a robot from Waypoint that’s moving goods and then I’ve got another pallet [mover], they all build their own maps, and they’re using their own maps, they are independent. So, there is no one Google Map for all these. What kind of problems does that cause?”
Gerkey recalled the various robots at his hospital client in Singapore.
“Those robots are from different vendors, and so each one offers its own command-and-control system, the vendors have their own fleet-management systems, they don’t share maps, and they don’t talk to each other at all,” he said. “At best, they treat each other as obstacles to avoid, and that’s it.”
Said Walker, “The problem with not having the same map to share between them is you don’t have that common frame of reference, so that each robot can understand what you mean when the top-level fleet manager says, ‘There is something at the start of aisle five,’ everybody must know what aisle five means so they don’t send a robot there at that time.”
One of the reasons shared mapping is so hard is that each robot makes its own map via onboard sensors. The map depends on where in space the sensor is. “If it’s a foot off the ground, it sees a bunch of tables,” Walker said. “If it’s four feet off the ground, it’s wide open. That difference is true at every level.”
A solution referenced in the standard is a common coordinate framework. With a framework in place, mathematics can help interpret the data from one robot for any other robot as long as they have some common coordinates. “So, basically, the standard is providing a common set of data from all of these platforms,” said Ryden. “You don’t have to have all the data, but if you have some of it, you make what data you do have available, and then some upper-level management software can be written to understand what AMRs you have on the floor, and then [can] create a common map or common view, so they understand the movements.”
AMRs also contend for charging space—and each uses unique charging equipment. The answer, Walker said, is to have universal wireless charging.
“Whoever shows up first [at a facility] puts in all the charging stations,” he said. “Whoever shows up second puts the wireless system on their robots, and then they can share these resources.”
Gerkey said his company has adopted interoperable wireless charging too. “We’re [also] working with a company that builds an aftermarket adapter kit that will make any AMR into a wirelessly chargeable one,” he said. “And the charging station has a vertical stage that brings the antenna up and down to match the height.”
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