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Before They Hit the Road, Driverless Vehicles Will Take Over Warehouses

Where better to experiment with autonomous driving than in a fully controlled space with lots of human jobs that are ripe for automation?
Amazon purchased Kiva, which makes warehouse robots, to help run its fulfillment centers.

Much is made of the impending arrival of autonomous cars on our roads. But we might see many of the impressive advances in self-driving vehicles appear from inside warehouses over the coming years.

Many warehouse facilities, such as those operated by Amazon, are already heavily automated. Most of the robots used to automate such facilities spend their time fetching items from warehouse storage so that they can be picked, packed, and sent off to customers—but that’s only part of the story. “There are always other things to be moved around,” say Paul Clarke, the chief technology officer of Ocado, the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer. “Even in heavily roboticized distribution centers, goods have to get in: when a truck draws up, goods need to be unloaded and brought to a place where a human or a robot decants the items.”

Many companies are now developing robots that could help automate that part of the puzzle. Today, for instance, Bloomberg reports that Spanish engineering firm Asti, which has received investment from the likes of Caterpillar and General Electric, is building a variety of autonomous forklifts, stackers, and pallet trucks. And the American firm Fetch Robotics, whose chief executive Melonee Wise was one of our 35 Innovators Under 35 in 2015, recently launched a pallet-carrying robot, which can haul loads of 1,500 kilograms and find its way using a combination of lidar and stereo cameras.

Next comes the interesting part, though, because we’re likely to see autonomous vehicles like these used widely in industrial settings far sooner than we’ll see them on our roads. Indeed, a warehouse is an “interesting environment” for developing autonomous vehicles because it “lets you experiment with the same technology [being used on the roads] but in a more controlled, unregulated environment,” says Clarke. “It’s our property, and we can make sure people don’t jump out and do weird things [in front of the vehicles] in the same way that pedestrians can.”

That might make it easier to deploy, say, vehicles that have learned to drive from scratch by themselves using deep learning. Those kinds of technologies currently make many people rather twitchy, because there’s currently no way to probe them to find out how they made their decisions. Warehouse owners are likely to prove more permissive about having robots trundle along their floors than governments are about having them on their highways.

For its part, Clarke says that Ocado is starting to work with the British autonomous-vehicle firm Oxbotica on self-driving vehicles for use inside its warehouses. (The two are also partnering on a trial involving driverless grocery deliveries.)

So far the pair have mapped one of the grocer’s distribution centers to gather information that vehicles will need to navigate it, though Clarke wouldn’t say which specific applications were planned as targets for automation. All he will say is that Ocado “could create a safe environment” in which Oxbotica could “do experiments that they couldn’t yet do on the road.”

(Read more: Bloomberg, “This Robot Will Haul Up to 1,500 Kilos Around a Warehouse for Nine Hours without Stopping,” “Autonomous Grocery Vans Are Making Deliveries in London,” “The Robotic Grocery Store of the Future Is Here”)

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