Robotic Industrial Trucks Leader Seegrid CEO Friedman Talks to Next Big Future

Seegrid CEO Dr. Scott Friedman recently discussed the burgeoning importance of warehouse robots, why voice-activated industrial robots will not appear, and the coming era of “twilight” factories and warehouses dominated by robots in The Next Big Future. His interview appeared in a feature titled, The Coming of Age in Robotics.

Friedman was asked: Question: Seegrid’s warehouse robots have vision systems. How does the vision system work? He responded, “The vision system works by creating a 3-D grid, actually an Occupancy Grid, which is a machine vision technique invented by Seegrid’s co-founder, Hans Moravec. That is why our company is named Seegrid. It is a pun on “see the grid”. “

The system is used to let the robot know where it is located on the grid, what Seegrid calls localization. It is not designed for object recognition, but can customize the unit and add that capability if customers desired it.

According to Friedman, “Warehouse modifications need not be made in order to implement Seegrid Robotic Industrial Trucks into our customers’ processes. The evidence-grid technology that we have developed for location recognition is a general, or strong, AI (Artificial Intelligence), so it doesn’t need specific conditions in order to work reliably; it locates its position regardless of where it is. The system works great outside as well as inside, though the current products are not waterproof, so we do not recommend using them outside.”

It takes a robot to a few hours to learn its way around a warehouse. The Seegrid “WalkThroughThenWork,” allows the customer to take the robot around the warehouse once, and shows it what it wants to do. Then, after the walkthrough, the robot starts to work. So, these robots are engaging in productive work on the day that they arrive in the customers’ warehouse. We just had a major soft drink manufacturer go live using our robots—they were up and running the same day.

Friedman noted, “I’m not sure that we will ever see warehouses that employ robots exclusively. The ratio of robots to humans will continue to rapidly change until we see “twilight” warehouses with large numbers of robots and maybe a dozen or so humans. In aviation, planes have been able to take off, fly and land for decades, however there is such complexity that some humans still need to be in the loop for traffic control. Warehouses have that same kind of complexity.”

Friedman also suggests that voice-operated robots are unlikely to become an option on future robots in an industrial environment. The ambient background noise presents serious problems. It is technically feasible, but for most tasks, some sort of tablet-based solution generally makes more sense. A dedicated audio system is expensive, so unless the person needs to make frequent commands to the robots, it is not cost-effective.

Labor is approximately 80% of the costs of operating forklifts, so it is not a matter of if robotic vehicles will become the standard, it is a matter of when. Within a decade, perhaps 30% of all industrial vehicles will be robotic, and the ratio will get continually larger.

Robotic industrial vehicles are, according to the insurance companies, ten times as safe as human-operated vehicles. In addition to reducing costs, improving safety is another reason that this industry is becoming increasingly interested in robotics.

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