Mobile robots aren't science fiction anymore

Just don't expect them to look, walk and talk like C-3PO in the Star Wars movies -- rolling and beeping like R2-D2 is more like it

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"The delivery market is growing fastest for hospitals and factories," said Deitch. "Security applications are slower to catch on."

Diodato noted that security robots can patrol a building -- including data centers and server rooms -- and provide periodic reports, including the absence of fire extinguishers, burned-out lights, water on the floor and other mundane details that a security guard might not notice.

"But people are waving money at me for materials-handling robots, so I'll worry about patrol robots later," Diodato added.

Warehouse workers

While Aethon and MobileRobots differ on how to map a building, for some buildings -- like featureless warehouses -- mapping is pointless. Kiva Systems Inc. has come out with a system of autonomous robots that handle materials in warehouses, and "mapping" consists of gluing bar codes on the floor to act as reference points. Kiva's Stevens explained that most warehouse automation systems involve sophisticated conveyor belts, "but instead of organizing the building, we want to let the products organize themselves."

The result was the development of a series of low, wheeled robots that maneuver themselves under specially designed "pods" (shelf racks and pallets) that contain inventory, lift them off the ground just enough to carry them, and deliver them as required to the warehouse stockers.

A central server gives the units orders via Wi-Fi and provides clearance to enter specific floor areas. Each unit has its own IP address. The units have infrared sensors, and if they find themselves blocked, they will ask that someone come and clear a path or ask permission from the central server to take another route, Stevens explained.

Typically, larger CaseFetch units bring in cases, which are split so their contents are distributed among "stocking pods" by human stockers. When their contents are needed to fill an order, they are brought to the stockers by smaller ItemFetch units. Once an order is assembled, it is taken to the shipping area by an OrderFetch unit, he added.

A Kiva warehouse robot delivering a pod (shelf rack) of items to a stocker.
 
A Kiva warehouse robot delivering a pod (shelf rack) of items to a stocker.
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