FedEx to Blaze the Trail of Mobile Robotics Interoperability

FedEx to Blaze the Trail of Mobile Robotics Interoperability

MassRobotics announced (May 18th) the release of what it claimed to be the “World’s First Open Source Autonomous Mobile Robot Interoperability Standards.” The MassRobotics AMR Interoperability Standard is designed to assist organizations in the deployment of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) from multiple vendors and have them work together in the same environment, better realizing the promise of warehouse and factory automation. And my impression from discussions with users, and from the discussions at a 2021 Mass Robotics event, is that heterogeneous operating requirements are a reality, therefore making interoperability a top priority.

Trail Blazing and Bushwhacking

The first use-case of the MassRobotics standards will be a trial this fall at a FedEx facility. I had the opportunity to speak with Aaron Prather, Senior Technical Advisor at FedEx about this trial. I was curious about the role and extent of robotics in FedEx’s operations. Aaron informed me that bots, in some form or function, have been rolled out across the vast majority of FedEx business units. I was surprised that the robotics presence at FedEx was so widespread. And with current labor market constraints, there is likely to be opportunity for increased use of AMRs at FedEx in the future. This is where Aaron’s team comes into the picture. It is a centralized unit within FedEx that is responsible for testing technologies and determining the use cases and determining the technology’s applicability to the wide range of operational needs across the company.  The forthcoming interoperability test run by his unit will tap into the MassRobotics Standard and will be a partnership between FedEx, Waypoint Robotics, Vecna Robotics, Siemens, Yaskawa, and the University of Memphis.

Establishing the Right of Way

FedEx has deployed bots from numerous providers across facilities. They have learned that certain robots or models are especially well-suited for certain tasks, while other bots are more well-suited for other tasks. Limiting a given type of bot to a section of a facility is a constraint on the value that FedEx can derive from adoption of the bot or bots. Therefore, FedEx wishes to enable robot interoperability and collaboration. Although on-board sensors generally provide adequate safety, robot decision-making can be suboptimal when confronted with an unfamiliar obstacle, especially if it is mobile like an unfamiliar AMR. Interoperability can deliver value simply by removing performance degradation that occurs during such unfamiliar situations. The scope of the MassRobotics Standard provides a framework for bot location, speed, direction, availability, capability, and status with the goal of improving interoperability in mixed environments.

The trial will include bots from at least 3, and as many as 5, distinct providers. Siemens will provide the communications layer that will leverage the MassRobotics Standard. One type of bot will work on its own use case, for example, pallet movements, while two or more other types of bots will work on use cases interchangeable between them. The bots will communicate location, direction of movement, capacity, and battery load. The Siemens communications system will indicate load size and direct the movement/task to an appropriate bot. Subsequently, the given bot will determine its own path to pick-up the load.

Defining Success

Ideally, this ARM interoperability trial will show that the heterogenous bots will maintain safety, complete their tasks without performance degradation, and validate the capabilities of the communications structure and the MassRobotics Standard. These improvements are hoped to blaze the trail for mixed bot implementations, accelerated deployments, and a wider range of use cases and performance improvements at FedEx.

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