Increasing demand for AGV

An automated guided vehicle or automatic guided vehicle (AGV) is a mobile robot that follows markers or wires in the floor, or uses vision or lasers. AGVs are mainly used in industrial applications to move materials around a manufacturing facility or a warehouse, but the application of AGVs go beyond simply moving materials from one point to the other. Sophisticated AGVs are installed in numerous industries including attractions. For example, UK-based Simworx launched two new products –AGV Dark Ride and the Mini Flying Theatre at International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo in November 2019. The driver-less AGV offers a number of benefits. In addition to being a good response to labor shortage, it allows employees to be reassigned to areas where they can add value to the product. AGV also provides safe, efficient, cost-effective movement of materials. The global AVG market was estimated to be around $1 billion in 2018, but driven by the expansion of logistics, manufacturing, healthcare, and other end-use industries, it is projected to grow at CAGR of around 9% during the next decade from 2019 to 2029.

Evolution of AGV navigation

Mac Barrett of Barrett Electronics Corporation built the first automatic guided vehicle (it was named “Guide-o-Matic”) in 1953 by modifying a towing tractor so that it followed an overhead wire. The so-called “Guide-o-Matic” became soon became popular with warehouses and factories. The term AGV was coined in the 1980s, and around that time, engineers introduced non-wire guidance mechanisms, such as lasers and magnetic tape. Laser guidance specifically was introduced in 1987. In 1989, engineers introduced computer controls. Traditional AGV navigation relies on lasers, inertial guidance and magnetic tape, and these traditional approaches remain popular because of the ease of installation and low cost. “It’s a very straightforward and simple way for people without technology backgrounds to make the vehicle go where they want,” said Nick Ellens, autonomous vehicle development manager for Daifuku Jervis B. Webb, in an interview by Modern Materials Handling. Those systems suit well for standard, predictable and repetitive operation, for example, simply carrying same-sized products on the same route. However, the demand for greater AGV capability is increasing as operations of today’s factories and distribution centers become more complex. For those reasons, AGV manufacturers are now moving beyond magnetic tape and adopting navigation technologies such as simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM), light detection and ranging (LiDAR), lasers, cameras and natural feature or contour guidance. When conditions of surrounding environment keep changing, such advanced navigation systems are particularly useful. For example, China’s HRG showcased its new light-load indoor laser navigation AGV which can produce a 2D map of the facility through laser radar and navigate its own way. Finland-based Navitec Systems provides advanced natural feature navigation. Powered by advanced highly automated map building algorithms and efficient route design, its Dynamic Mapping helps AVG work properly and efficiently even with the lack of map data. Also, Precision Positioning or Pallet Finding enables accurate docking to stations, and Obstacle Avoidance is useful when carts are left on driveways. FANUC combines AGV developed with outside partners with its Collaborative Robots (Cobots). Thanks to the advanced navigation system, “the robot can move around extensively in an area where people are working, without the need for safety barriers,” said Toshiro Watanabe, a senior development engineer in FANUC’s Robot Mechanical Development Laboratory. The cobot even recharges itself by connecting and thus can operate 24 hours a day. Interests in AGVs are expected to increase as the factory becomes more intelligent. Availability of more powerful sensors, tracking technologies and software to quantify the materials on AGVs allows the operator to understand more precisely how goods move around in its facility. “That’s powerful in the context of Internet of Things and data-driven operations in Factory 4.0,” said Ellens. “I think it’s inevitable AGVs go in highly integrated environments and collaborate with other data processing systems to add even more value.”

AVG in last one-mile delivery

Natural feature navigation enables AVGs to be used in various situations beyond manufacturing. For example, AVGs are used to transport food containers, line, suppliers, pharmaceuticals, pathological samples in hospitals. More recently, AVGs attract much attention as a solution to last-mile delivery. After a trial in Washington State early this year, Amazon has officially rolled out its last-mile delivery robots in a Southern California in August 2019. Its delivery robot “Scout” is designed to autonomously ferry parcels from urban distribution points to Amazon Prime customers, removing the need for delivery vehicles in last-mile delivery. Similarly, Refraction AI developed a low-cost, lightweight delivery robot named REV-1, which can operate in both the bike lane and on the shoulder of roads. Instead of LiDAR, its primary sensor system is camera-based, which is the reason for the significant cost-savings, but the robot also utilizes radar and ultrasound sensors for added safety. Japan is lagging behind in this area due to the regulatory constraints that prohibits AVGs from running on public roads. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry established a public-private council to catch up and promote autonomous delivery robots for the last one-mile delivery of parcels. * Instead of AVG, the term AMR [Autonomous Mobile Robots] is often used to refer to more sophisticated, flexible, and cost-effective technology)