In 2019, the first conference on autonomous mobile robotics (AMRs) was held in Louisville, Kentucky. During that conference, a term kept bubbling up from some of the presenters. That term was interoperability.
It was mostly coming from end users, like myself, who were seeing issues starting to happen in our facilities where our pallet-moving robots were not playing nicely with our mopping robots.
Our concern was how we would be able to expand our fleets with other types of robots that had to operate in shared space. We were already having problems with two different robots, so how "would we" get past that issue so we could expand?
Interestingly, most of the robot manufacturers scoffed at the concept of interoperability. Then a global pandemic happened, and an explosion occurred in the need to automate operations with robotics as quickly as possible. This quickly made interoperability a front-of-mind issue for everyone in the industry.
Everyone realized that no robot manufacturer had all of the solutions that end users needed. End users fully realized that they needed numerous robots operating in the same space, with some robots doing the same use case while others were doing different use cases. What was holding them back from taking their adoption rate of robotics to 11? The hurdle was the lack of interoperability. End users had to go after only certain use cases at certain facilities and ignore others due to the lack of interoperability between most manufacturers’ robots.
In 2021, the in-person AMR Conference was held in Memphis, Tennessee, and interoperability was not only highlighted in many talks, it was actually demonstrated at FedEx’s R&D and Testing Center known as DART—Developing Advanced Research & Technology.
In a short amount of time, the industry had gone from talking about interoperability to executing on early steps of it. Going forward, there are already more plans to expand on the breakthrough in Memphis to include not only more robots, but other pieces of equipment from manned forklifts to building systems such as fire-alarm and suppression systems.
So, what happened to get us here and what is going to need to happen to move interoperability forward?
Unbeknownst to many was that some in the robotics industry were already working on key elements needed for interoperability. What Louisville did for the industry in 2019 was help to legitimize those efforts by the very end users who would benefit from that work. Standards groups such as Robotic Industries Association (RIA), now known as A3, and the Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, or Verband Deutscher Maschinen- und Anlagenbau (VDMA), in Germany started additional work in the area of interoperability.
Organizations such as MassRobotics helped to organize many of their members to start to work together on those efforts and further legitimize the work as critical. This helped to focus everyone on developing minimum viable products (MVPs) within interoperability that would be easy to implement across numerous platforms without giving up what made each platform special.
Prior to the conference in Memphis, MassRobotics published its first interoperability standard with the help of several AMR companies. That standard was then tested by Vecna Robotics, Waypoint Robotics, which is now owned by Locus Robotics, Wibotics and FedEx at FedEx’s DART facility in Memphis.
Up next for the MassRobotics standard is another test at the DART facility via a project "led" by the ARM Institute, which will expand on the first test by adding two more mobile platforms and a fixed robotic arm.
Also read: Fruitful robotic application
Beyond that, the work will shift to adding nonrobotic items to the overall interoperability platform. This will include manned equipment such as forklifts and building assets such as doors and elevators that the robots may need to interact with. FedEx hopes to start that work in early spring of 2022.
The next AMR Conference will be in Boston in 2022. Something tells me we will see more examples of how interoperability is being deployed into real-world use cases.
Aaron Prather is senior technical advisor, R&D, at FedEx in Memphis, Tennessee. Contact him at [email protected].