March 23, 2016

Clearpath launches smaller self-driving vehicle for e-commerce warehouses

Clearpath launches smaller self-driving vehicle for e-commerce warehouses

Otto 100 robot to carry cases and totes around DCs.

By Ben Ames

Canadian robot manufacturer Clearpath Robotics Inc. today rolled out a miniaturized model of its self-driving vehicle used in factories and warehouses, another step in its strategy to provide fulfillment equipment that can keep up with the rising demands of e-commerce.

While Clearpath's original product, the Otto 1500, is built to carry fully loaded pallets of goods, the new Otto 100 is designed to carry smaller cases, totes, and "each" loads, company CEO Matt Rendall said in a phone interview.

Working together in collaborative fleets, the two types of autonomous transporters could function alongside human pickers in congested industrial environments such as distribution, e-commerce, and manufacturing, he said.

Named for its maximum payload in kilograms, the Otto 100 can carry loads up to 220 pounds at speeds up to 4.5 mph. The pallet-shaped Otto is similar in appearance to Amazon Robotics' Kiva robot, but follows a material handling strategy of "robot plus person" as opposed to "goods to person," he said.

"Kiva Systems were way ahead of their time and took the fulfillment industry by storm," Rendall said. "They proved the technology was not only ready, but could deliver (return on investment). Then overnight, Amazon took them off the market."

E-commerce colossus Amazon acquired the Massachusetts-based Kiva in 2012 for $775 million, ceased selling its robotic solutions to other companies, and renamed it Amazon Robotics.

The Kitchener, Ont.-based Clearpath stepped into that void to meet the latent demand for warehouse automation by offering a variation on Kiva's approach. Clearpath unveiled its first platform, the larger Otto 1500, in September 2015. With a top payload of 3,300 pounds and the same top speed as its little brother, that vehicle is designed for heavy-load material transport and is currently being used in a warehouse pilot program by General Electric, Clearpath says.

In Clearpath's view, a single DC might use both its robot models in concert, deploying a fleet of Otto 1500s to carry palletized goods from a receiving dock to a depalletizer, then handing off cases and totes to a flock of smaller Otto 100s.

In another approach, a warehouse could add only the Otto 100s, using them to complement its traditional automation systems. Rendall compares this strategy to a city metro system with both a mass transit subway and a taxicab fleet for personal trips. In the same fashion, warehouses rely on their miles of fixed conveyor lines to operate like a train network for bulk transportation, but they also need employees—or robots—to move individual items to their final destinations.

Under the hood, both robot models use Clearpath's self-driving operating system to steer along optimal paths and avoid collisions. They integrate with a facility's enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform through the company's enterprise fleet management system, which also manages their battery recharging schedules. The robots sense their surroundings using laser-based "lidar" scanning to map a building floor, then use onboard intelligence and cloud connectivity to operate in collaborative fleets.

Collaboration is key to the Clearpath strategy, which envisions warehouse employees working alongside the Otto platforms, not being replaced by them. "Just as the Google self-driving car needs to safely operate near pedestrians, Otto needs to safely operate near laborers, inside a warehouse aisle or a pick area," Rendall said.

Robot fleets can deliver their highest return by taking over repetitive tasks and leaving warehouse workers to perform jobs at which humans excel, such as picking specific parts from a crowded box or shelf, which requires a high level of dexterity,he said.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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