Saturday, January 7, 2017

Oh, patents! Freight and Fetch (the robots)

Copyright © Françoise Herrmann

Freight, an autonomous mobile cart designed to assist with warehouse logistics, looks like R2D2’s real life cousin! Fetch, a much taller cousin called a mobile manipulator, also designed to operate in the domain of warehouse logistics, is equipped with a jointed robotic arm and a head. The arm is designed to “fetch” items on shelves, while the head is equipped with a depth camera for visual recognition of items on a shelf.

Best of all, both Freight and Fetch are the inventions of robot ninja extraordinaire, Melonee Wise, who is also CEO of a start-up company called FetchRobotics.

Extraordinaire indeed! With a PhD in mechanical engineering and undergraduate degrees in both physics and mechanical engineering, Wise has also worked for 15 years on various robotics projects, including as a robotics design manager for Willow Garage. Willow Garage is a Silicon Valley, independent and non-military, robotics research laboratory, whose mission is to develop open source robotics software and hardware with both theoretical understanding and practical know-how, ultimately resulting in the spin-off of several non-military robotics start-ups.

Freight and Fetch are both designed to automate tedious, tiring, routine and sometimes unhealthy logistics operations, and…  (oh, no!....) to replace people….

Well, yes, that’s exactly the point. And, you will be more than happy that robots can assist -- even happier with a whole fleet of Freights and Fetches…. Indeed, approx. 60,000 positions are currently unfilled, and evidently unwanted, for working 24/7 in large ecommerce procurement centers and warehouses, such as Amazon, among many others.

You might be wondering how you can order with 1-click and be delivered the same day or the next… no matter where in the continental USA, and elsewhere in the world. Well… now you know. A lot of expert choreography and wizardry are invoked in automating instant procurement to keep up with the growing demands, all of which robots like Freight and Fetch are expertly designed to support, and perform.

Traditionally, warehouse workers pick items from shelves, load carts and push around heavy loads.  Freight can dock with a cart, using the Cartdock kit, and then move the cart around the warehouse, freighting up to 200 lbs. Freight follows a worker (recognizing legs!) and does not rely on a driver to autonomously transport items elsewhere. Equipped with sensors and lasers Freight can navigate aisles and avoid obstacles. Freight also offers workers great motorized rides from one shelf to another, making it a lot of fun to navigate a warehouse.  

Freight and Fetch are designed to work together, when Fetch picks items from a shelf, loads them, and Freight transports them to another drop-off area for dispatching, packing, and shipping. However, the trick is for Freight and Fetch to collaborate with warehouse workers, to make their tasks easier. For example, when Freight accompanies a worker to pick items, and Freight is loaded, it can autonomously go to drop off the load while another empty Freight meets with the warehouse worker, helping to transport new items. This saves the warehouse worker up to 50 % of time spent going back and forth from pick-up to drop-off areas, across distances as long as one-quarter mile, and as wide as 200 yards.  

Freight can also be programmed using a Datasurvey package to survey and inspect a warehouse, navigating all the aisles, collecting environmental, inventory and security data with a camera. Fetchcore programs can coordinate a fleet of Freights and Fetches, sending pickup and drop off information to all the machines to keep them coordinated in their tasks, or to alter workflows. And workers can see the choreography of the goods on screen, using a Virtualconveyor program, as the items are freighted, through aisles and paths, to various drop-off points.  Indeed, even the HMIshelf  (Human Machine Interface add-on shelf) is equipped with a touchscreen that is operable with gloves, just in case warehouse product safety requires that workers wear gloves.

Fetchrobotics leases equipment to resolve the issue of high costs for advanced technology, and also to prevent the robots from becoming obsolete. According to Wise, robots just don’t age well!

Several patent applications were filed in connection to  this domain of robotics-assisted warehouse logistics:
  • WO2016130849 titled System and method for order fulfillment using robots
  • WO2016130856 titled System and method using robots to assist humans in order fulfillment.
  • US2016207193 titled Personal robotic system and method.
The abstract for WO2016130849 is included below with a figure drawing extracted from the disclosure.  An image of the manufactured Fetch and Freight robots is also included above.

A system for order fulfillment using one or more robots includes: a server configured to receive an order comprising an order item; inventory storage operably connected to the server, the inventory storage comprising order items; an actor robot operably connected to and selected by the server, the actor robot configured to perform one or more of picking the order item from inventory storage, moving the order item, and positioning the order item; and an order robot operably connected to the server, the order robot configured to collect the order item, wherein the order item is positioned by the actor robot so as to be accessible to the order robot, so as to perform order fulfillment using one or more robots. [Abstract WO2016130849]
References
FetchRobotics
Video – Fetchrobotics
The Essential Interview: Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch robotics – The Robotics Business Review, June 15, 2016.
Melonee Wise – My Robot Life
Melonee Wise, 33: Affordable robots for the warehouse and beyond – MIT Technology Review – EMTech, Nov. 3, 2015
Video EMTech Nov. 3, 2015 – Meet the innovators under 35: Melonee Wise – FetchRoboticshttp://events.technologyreview.com/video/watch/innovators-under-35-melonee-wise/
Willow Garage
Sabitha, Z. B. (2014) Case study on Amazon.com’s supply chain in management studies. Slideshare.net – Feb. 24, 2014

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