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Autonomous, Human-Friendly Forklifts Being Developed

Autonomous forklift

Autonomous forklift (Chris Vaughan, University of Lincoln)

3 November 2017. An academic-industry team in Europe is developing new forklift vehicles that can work safely alongside humans in warehouses. The project known as Intra-Logistics with Integrated Automatic Deployment, or Iliad, brings together researchers  in the U.K., Sweden, Italy, and Germany, and is funded by a €7 million ($U.S. 8.1 million) award from the European Unions’s Horizon 2020 fund.

The Iliad project seeks to develop fleets of autonomous robots that perform key moving and packing tasks in warehouses, but can operate safely in the company of human workers. The team includes scientists and engineers from University of Lincoln in the U.K., University of Pisa in Italy, Örebro University in Sweden, and Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany. Industry partners include Bosch, Kollmorgen Automation, ACT Operations Research, Logistic Engineering Services, and Orkla Foods.

The project is designing forklift vehicles to operate independently, but interact in a single integrated system of other vehicles and devices. Each vehicle, says the project organizers, will be self-optimizing, which means it will collect data over time and adjust its work processes as it learns from the aggregated data. In addition, the vehicles will be sensitive to the presence and activity of humans, incorporating computer vision and artificial intelligence to detect, track, and predict the movements of humans in their surroundings.

Iliad vehicles, of course, still need to perform a variety of warehouse tasks, such as unpacking and stacking goods, but in a much more economical way. The project plans to develop governing systems that enable the vehicles to incorporate maps of warehouses and their contents, while keeping track of pallets and products. The vehicles will also be able to relocate to other warehouse locations, and adjust to changing numbers of other vehicles in their work areas.

While Iliad vehicles expect to be used in a variety of industries, the project is starting with the fresh food industry as its test case. This industry has a number of demanding requirements: short shelf life of products, a need for complete traceability, high cost from product waste, and a need to respond quickly to changing markets. The industry supports some 4 million jobs in Europe and has an annual sales volume of €1 trillion.

Mark Swainson with University of Lincoln’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing, and a participant in Iliad, says in a university statement, “The massive scale of food volumes moved by the sector means that being able to do this quickly and efficiently can make the difference between business success or failure.”  Swainson adds, “Robots seamlessly integrating alongside humans, often working collaboratively, will unlock significant productivity advances in the sector while also serving to help address anticipated challenges resulting from increased competition and escalating operating costs over the coming years.”

The Iliad project began in January 2017 and concludes at the end of 2020.

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