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Forget household vacuums – these automated robots can organize an entire warehouse

Reprinted News | Forget household vacuums – these automated robots can organize an entire warehouse

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In many works of science fiction – think Terminator and I, Robot – a common trope is the self-aware automaton. While we haven’t quite reached the stage of true artificial intelligence, autonomous robots have been around for some time – and thankfully, they’re a lot more innocuous and helpful.

Reprinted Article|Forget household vacuums – these automated robots can organize an entire warehouse

Less “killer robot” and more “helpful” / Photo credit: VisionNav Robotics

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots(AMRs) are commonly used in logistics warehouses to move items around.

“AMRs can use the natural environment for navigation, kind of like what Tesla’s technology is like,” says Don Dong, vice president of global sales at VisionNav Robotics, a leading company in the field of AGVs and AMRs.

Beep boop

While AGVs and AMRs might seem similar, they’re actually two different things. AGVs usually rely on a guidance system – like magnets on the floor – while AMRs move around through an independent system.

Over the years that AGVs and AMRs have been around – possibly as early as the 1950s – they’ve moved away from using guided, environment-based systems toward more independent ones, says Dong.

Reprinted Article|Forget household vacuums – these automated robots can organize an entire warehouse

Don Dong, vice president of global sales at VisionNav Robotics / Photo credit: VisionNav Robotics

“If they can navigate autonomously, it makes these robots a lot more adaptable to new environments,” he explains. “This means it’s faster to deploy and cheaper too, making it easier for customers to adopt.”

The operational efficacy of AGVs and AMRs has also improved in recent years. Dong chalks this up to better sensors being used, which improve spatial perception and therefore, allow the robots to move a lot faster while maintaining safety and accuracy.

No hide and seek needed

For VisionNav Robotics, one of its most important pieces of tech is the 3D sensor, which is used for navigation and environmental perception. According to Dong, VisionNav is the first autonomous forklift company to use laser-based 3D sensors for both positioning and perception.

While the firm doesn’t produce the sensors itself, it works extremely closely with suppliers to ensure that optimizations can be implemented as soon as possible. In some cases, VisionNav even starts these efforts from the development stage, allowing it to test out different scenarios and give feedback.

What the sensor “sees” while in operation / Photo credit: VisionNav Robotics

Being able to optimize these sensors is extremely important because while they aren’t new, their performance can vary wildly – even when the same models are deployed for similar use cases.

The difference is whether a company has the data and expertise to optimize the sensors and overcome issues – such as navigating warehouses that might be too dark for the sensor to detect things properly.

What allows VisionNav to reach a high level of performance is its extensive experience in real-world scenarios, which often involve a lot of hands-on work. Whenever a customer faces a new problem, VisionNav’s CTO and R&D team will go down to the customer’s location to understand the issue better and make improvements.

For example, a customer from the chemical fiber industry had difficulties operating VisionNav’s autonomous forklifts to transfer goods from the production line onto trucks.

The project manager on VisionNav’s team went down to the factory to investigate, and found out that the customer’s trucks had different specifications from the basic trucks that many other companies used. He then obtained the relevant specifications and informed VisionNav’s developers, who tweaked the algorithm accordingly.

“These sensors need to solve various problems faced by our clients, and the best way to do that is by accumulating enough experience and using that to optimize our algorithms,” he adds.

Reprinted Article|Forget household vacuums – these automated robots can organize an entire warehouse
Daredevil? Nah, this is just how 3D sensors perceive their environment / Image credit: VisionNav Robotics

Keeping an eye out

Another piece of tech that’s helped VisionNav Robotics empower its products is the BrightEye system, which involves cameras installed at the top of a warehouse to monitor ground locations.

The system ensures the safety of workers in the warehouse. For example, if a worker or vehicle enters certain regions that they’re not allowed to, a notification will be sent to alert the relevant personnel.

BrightEye also helps improve warehouse organization. In some cases, human workers might fail to scan an item’s barcode, meaning that a typical monitoring system can’t identify where that item is located.

With so many moving parts in a warehouse, these items could potentially get lost, says Dong. However, the BrightEye system can automatically scan barcodes, allowing companies to have a better grasp of where everything is.

The system’s advantage comes from VisionNav Robotics’ expertise in applying it to companies’ needs and use cases. Applying deep learning to train it was a crucial step – the company used recordings from warehouses to gather enough data and information to teach the system, especially in areas like environment and item recognition.

“A lot of it comes down to optimizing the algorithm,” says Dong. “The more you’ve learned from other sources, the faster you can apply it.”

Reprinted Article|Forget household vacuums – these automated robots can organize an entire warehouse

An overview of HKSTP’s impressive Science Park / Photo credit: leungchopan 

“Our CEO has lots of friends within HKSTP’s ecosystem, so it was only natural for us to also set up a demo room in the Science Park,” says Dong.

“Not only does this help us attract talent, but it’s also good for catching the eye of potential customers and partners.”

Taking a bigger bite

VisionNav isn’t about to take its foot off the pedal anytime soon. The next stop on its journey? Manufacturing its own vehicles.

“Originally, we’re more like a software company. But now, we’re planning to turn into a hardware company as well,” says Dong.

Currently, many AGVs and AMRs are simply manual forklifts retrofitted to accommodate new tech, making them bulkier than needed. Instead, VisionNav wants to manufacture vehicles already designed with automation in mind, making them smaller and much more maneuverable.

If these designs are expanded and used across the entire sector, it could lead to huge gains in efficiency and accuracy. For logistics firms, moving things quicker is always a good thing for their bottom line, and faster deliveries could improve the satisfaction of end customers too.

Additionally, the company is thinking about expanding its product portfolio to include more use cases. For instance, instead of just moving items around, AGVs could also be used to unload trailers.

“It’s all about solving more problems, perhaps even those that have never been solved before,” says Dong.

“We want to create a revolution in automated vehicles.”

For over 20 years, the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) has committed to building up Hong Kong as an international innovation and tech hub to help local and global pioneers find success. Through a host of strategic initiatives, HKSTP helps with attracting and nurturing talent, as well as accelerating and commercializing entrepreneurs’ innovation and tech efforts in the city and beyond.

This content was produced by Tech in Asia Studios, which connects brands with Asia’s tech community. Learn more about partnering with Tech in Asia Studios.