Over the last few decades, there’s been a lot of buzz about the rise of robots, but in reality, commercial robots have been mostly confined to tightly controlled manufacturing and industrial settings. That has changed within the last several years thanks to the evolution of new artificial intelligence-driven navigation systems that enable robots to operate autonomously and safely in high-traffic commercial locations, such as retail and grocery stores.
This new type of autonomous mobile robot (AMR) has garnered a lot of attention during the recent health crisis as retailers and grocers accelerated their use of robotic floor scrubbers to meet evolving customer expectations around cleanliness and safety.
But what exactly are AMRs, and how do they differ from other robots of years past?
To answer that question, it’s helpful to review the three main categories of commercial robots: industrial manufacturing robots, automated guided vehicles, also known as AGVs, and AMRs.
Industrial manufacturing robots, most commonly recognized as robotic arms in large manufacturing plants, have been around since the 1960s. First used by General Motors to help build cars, these robots quickly became a staple in major manufacturing plants and factories around the world. Industrial manufacturing robots are pre-programmed to do specific, repetitive tasks, and are confined to the area in which they are installed. Most of the time, these machines operate away from humans on mechanized assembly lines and require highly skilled workers to manage them.
Automated guided vehicles first entered the scene more than 15 years ago, playing an important role in warehouses and some industrial settings. AGVs are guided by specially installed beacons, tracks, or markers, requiring significant infrastructural changes to the environment in which they do their jobs. The implementation process for AGVs can be very expensive, and the robots are limited to their designated paths. Some of the most well-known AGVs are the robots that work in Amazon fulfillment centers, which carry pallets filled with inventory.
These robots are often used to carry items from one area in a warehouse to another and serve few other purposes on account of their limited mobility. While AGVs are not entirely unsafe to be around, they do generally perform their tasks in relatively isolated environments, while humans work along the edges of their pathways.
Autonomous mobile robots serve a similar purpose to AGVs, but are fully autonomous, meaning they require no custom infrastructure (like beacons) or specialized training to operate. AMRs are typically easy to deploy, and can be re-programmed on the fly to follow new routes as needed. If AGVs are like trains running on fixed tracks, then consider AMRs like cars—able to roam and change direction at any time, while avoiding people and obstacles.
The newest breed of AMRs leverage artificial intelligence (AI), 3D cameras, and LiDAR sensors so they can operate safely not only in warehouses, but also within high-traffic locations such as retail and grocery stores, malls, airports, schools, healthcare facilities, and more. This unlocks new opportunities for public-facing businesses and their employees to use robotic automation to handle dull, dirty, and repetitive tasks, such as cleaning floors, hauling carts, or managing shelf inventory.
Newer AMRs, like the ones that Brain Corp develops together with its manufacturing partners, are also characterized by intuitive user interfaces that make it easy for non-technical employees to train and use the robots, as well as near real-time operational data that can be used to verify and optimize performance.
The Growth of AMRs
According to global analyst firm ABI Research, AMRs will become the dominant category of mobile outside of structured environments, reaching 300,000 annual shipments within retail by the year 2030. The growth of these self-driving robots will only accelerate in the wake of the recent global health crisis, said Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI.
“Those end users that begin deploying AMRs now will be rewarded with a more robust operation that can be trusted to operate in a world where pandemics and other major externalities are increasingly prevalent,” Witton states in a new report. “Those that are slow to incorporate this promising technology will not just see lower productivity, but will miss out on the dividends paid by robotic platforms, which will be a key generator for data analysis and IoT insights in the next 5 to 10 years.”
While robots have been a necessary element of manufacturing processes since the 1960s, their recent transition to serving roles in public-facing commercial locations shows that robotics is here to stay. With the advanced development of AI technology and more applications for self-driving robots constantly being discovered, the capabilities of these smart machines are limitless.