Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML in Dortmund are spearheading a novel warehousing project that aims to revolutionize and automate inventories through the aid of flying robots.
The manual inspection of a goods warehouse is a fundamental component of the legally proscribed annual inventory. Nevertheless, conventional inventory-taking is a time-consuming affair and paralyzes a majority of the warehouse operations – with customers often cursing their fate as they stare blankly at “closed today” signboards. Even the barcodes and RFID tags pervasively used today are of little help. The entire process still demands a vast amount of personnel and time.
And this is where Fraunhofer’s Marco Freund steps into the picture. The certified logistics specialist who heads the InventAIRy Project is keenly familiar with the problems that must be confronted when running an inventory.
Being a visionary that he is, Freund fathoms an optimized inventory system to look something like this: “The person in charge is sitting at his desk and at the press of a button, can inspect inventories or perhaps search for a specific item – without incurring any staffing or logistics costs.”
To ensure this becomes reality in the not-too-distant future, Freund and his colleagues engineered a ‘dynamically animated records system’ that distinguishes itself – on one rather critical point – from commonly available solutions currently in use today: “Goods and pallets can already be tracked automatically, via RFID for instance. In doing so, the antennas that the chips read out are permanently mounted to the shelf. The chips are located on the products and are recorded if they pass the readout device. With InventAIRy, exactly the opposite applies: The radio chips remain in their fixed position, the antenna is moved by its integration into a flying robot.” said Freund.
The Inventory Assistants, which the scientists have in mind, are autonomous robots that move throughout the warehouses by flying. It is already a reality with driverless transportation systems, so it should also be possible to put them to flight with InventAIRy: In this project, the IML researchers are moving toward the goal of engineering autonomous flying robots that are capable of independently navigating and conducting inventory.
According to Freund, these flying assistants should be able to localize objects both in the warehouses as well as the exterior area, and be able to track through barcodes and RFID tags. The robots also possess a distinctive advantage; they act independent of ground-based obstructions. Furthermore, they can move in any direction and see into hard-to-reach places, such as tall storage shelves.
The individual service robot, as an intelligent mobile object, perceives its environment dynamically on two levels: It detects how the warehouse is configured using motion and camera sensors, for instance, and can orient itself within the warehouse. GPS determines its position outside. In addition, the robot records the stored items in terms of content. The scientists have accomplished this with the aid of optical sensors or radio sensors.
“We take a look at various key problem sets at the same time: robustly designed, lightweight flying robots that can reliably recognize their surroundings, as well as intelligent software for their route planning and coordination,” the certified logistician explains. “To ensure this solution is also appealing to small- and medium-sized enterprises, we intentionally dispensed with the installation of an expensive local infrastructure that the robots can use to orient themselves.”
The researchers want to accomplish this with the aid of intelligent algorithms. The flying objects should prepare maps of the warehouse on a fully automated basis, and independently modify them if there are any changes. The basis for this are, for example, ultrasound sensors, 3D cameras, and laser scanners.
Current solutions are able to integrate collected inventory data automatically into existing warehouse administration systems, without requiring additional software development. InventAIRy researchers, by contrast, are working on smart interfaces that transmit data wirelessly into existing systems. This means commercial operations save time and money – and documentation errors decrease. Furthermore, the flying robots can continuously monitor warehouse inventories.
The team’s preliminary results have so far been highly promising: “By mid-2015, we intend to start with a partially automated flight. In this phase, the robot equipped with the identification technology hovers – without having to be controlled via remote operation – at one position, and circumvents collisions with obstructions, such as shelves,” Freund states enthusiastically.
Image credits: Fraunhofer IML