A Look Back at RIA's Autonomous Mobile Robot Conference

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This is a guest post by Southwest Research Institute Intelligent Machine’s Group Lead Cody Porter, as he was on-site at the RIA AMR Conference in Louisville, KY.

The Robotics Industries Association (RIA) and the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) hosted the inaugural Autonomous Mobile Robot Conference September 17th in Louisville, Kentucky. The event was a vast success with over 400 attendees ranging from end users, integrators, OEMs, researchers, and academics discussing the current AMR technologies, tips for integration, and future growth.

The opening speaker, Melonee Wise of Fetch Robotics, delivered a fantastic talk about the current technologies used in most AMR applications. The basics operations for how AMRs perceive and sense their environment, how to navigate dynamic environments, and what safety considerations are relevant to AMRs.

Matthew Rendall of OTTO Motors elegantly explained the most prevalent value proposition for AMRs. The labor force is shrinking in the United States while customer expectations for shorter lead times increase. The efficiency and effectiveness of AMRs are major benefits to most material handling applications and will see a continued acceptance in industry at large. Several other speakers, such as Denise Ebenhoech of Kuka and Norm Williams of OMRON, showed some additional applications of how AMRs have been used in other applications such as machine tending, machine feeding, lab automation, and several manufacturing applications.

Other topics of interest included the safety standards that govern the use of AMRs. A NIST report in 2013 highlighted the current gaps in published safety standards of the combination of automated ground vehicles (AGVs) and manipulators. The new standard, RIA R15.08, is in development. Michael Gerstenberger, chair of the R15.08 Drafting Subcommittee, gave a preview. A decision tree of the scope of this standard was presented as shown below.

The talks concluded with Aaron Prather, Senior Technical Advisor of FedEx, who gave an overview of the logistics industry and what lessons FedEx has learned in AMR implementation. The talk gave a great perspective of the end user wish list and current shortcomings of AMRs. The first was a technical challenge; AMRs must be able to handle outdoor environments. Sun-blinding sensors, ground conditions disrupting odometry, platforms not able to withstand weather, and the dead reckoning of wide-open spaces must be addressed to open a vast number of use cases. The second shortcoming is the lack of interoperability of multiple AMR applications. End users are looking to fit AMRs within legacy systems as well as allowing multiple AMR OEMs to provide solutions for the best use cases. All presentation materials are publicly released on the RIA website.

The accelerated adoption of AMRs into warehousing and material handling applications is fertile ground for advanced software solutions that continue to leverage ROS. The future of interoperability is one of the most obvious solutions as the map data could be seamlessly shared between all platforms if OEMs are willing to expose, as it appears industry is expecting. In addition, the path planning and manipulation capabilities demonstrated in ROS-based systems could continue to expand the use cases far beyond simple A-to-B material handling applications. The AMRs of the future will need to seamlessly switch between manufacturing processes and reallocate manipulators to where they are needed on large parts or large factories. Let’s get beyond where we are today, and even the successes that have been demonstrated, and support the innovation that is possible, while satisfying end user demand, with richer collaboration-enabling frameworks such as ROS.