How autonomous robots are managed

Nicola Tomatis  -
Your Focus
- 27 Jul 2023 ( #1138 )
5 min read
Fleet management systems direct autonomous warehouse robots
Fleet management systems direct autonomous warehouse robots
Dr Nicola Tomatis has been the chief executive of BlueBotics since 2003, joining its board of directors in 2015.
He holds an Master of Computer Science from ETH Zurich and a PhD in robotics from the EPFL in Lausanne.
Dr Tomatis received the IEEE Early Career Award in Robotics and Automation in 2008 and has twice been included in Bilan's 300 Most Influential People in Switzerland.
He also sits on the board of euRobotics AISBL.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are rapidly becoming a mainstay in many warehouses and production sites. But they do not work in isolation.

In addition to moving loads from point A to B, they must interact with equipment, site software, other vehicles, pedestrians and more. 

How well they achieve this seamless integration depends largely on having the right mission and fleet management system in place. 

What fleet management software does

While AGV configuration software is used to program where a vehicle should go, how to get there and what to do when it arrives, while mission and fleet management software synchronises interaction with other equipment and machinery while the system is in motion.

 

It is the command-and-control center for the operation, scheduling missions, controlling traffic automatically, monitoring the fleet in real time, managing battery charging and interfacing with existing equipment.

 

The fleet management software can even simulate entire vehicle operations and missions, which can help understand the impact of process refinements, without needing to modify operations.


The fleet management software usually receives its marching orders from a site's existing business software, such as a warehouse management system (WMS), manufacturing execution system (MES) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.


These software programs talk to each other via an API, which can often require some custom development or some form of middleware before AGVs are installed.. 

Take the example of an MES supporting an electronics assembly line.

The MES might signal to the fleet manager that five pallet loads of finished products are ready to go to from assembly to the outbound warehouse.

The fleet manager will then automatically dispatch the appropriate number of AGVs or AMRs to the line pick-up, making its decision based upon pre-set parameters such as only choosing vehicles that can handle this type and size of payload and which can fit in the aisles leading back to the warehouse.

If more than one vehicle is qualified to carry out the mission, the fleet manager will select the AGV that can perform the transport most efficiently, usually the one that is closest (providing, of course, its battery has enough charge).

By contrast, when supporting a chemical production line the fleet manager might instead schedule AGV missions to supply ingredients in real-time based on signal inputs from level sensors that tell it when it is necessary to refill the hopper. 

Keeping traffic flowing

When several AGVs or AMRs are working on-site, it is crucial that any crossings are managed correctly in order to avoid deadlocks and therefore delays.

The fleet manager is also responsible for managing traffic flow, including coordinating communications with on-site equipment such as automatic doors and even elevators along the way.

While traffic rules are typically configurable, a default setting in the case of two vehicles needing to cross paths would likely be 'first come, first served', meaning the second vehicle to arrive would be the first through the crossing.

However, other approaches are equally possible, such as ordering the vehicles based on the priority of their respective missions. 

Interacting with on-site equipment

Enabling vehicles to interact, or "handshake", with on-site equipment such as elevators, conveyors and automatic doors is another crucial function of modern fleet management systems. 

Often the fleet manager will work in parallel with the AGV project that was programmed in the integrator's project configuration software.

When a vehicle approaches an elevator, for example, it will first slow down; behavior that is programmed into the vehicle's route and actions in the configuration software.

However, at this point the configured project will instruct the fleet manager to request the elevator.

If the elevator is available, the fleet manager will instructs the PLC (computer) that controls the elevator door, which in turn will instruct its actuators to physically open the door.

The AGV drives in, and then the fleet manager requests the door is closed indicates which floor is required. 

Optimising AGV and fleet performance

In addition to ensuring that vehicles move safely and effectively throughout a site, any modern fleet manager will generate operating data that can help a company to improve the performance of its AGV installation over time. 

Some fleet managers also include a simulation tool, which by working alongside the AGV's project configuration software, can be invaluable at the pre-deployment planning stage.

For example, a simulator can model the motion of virtual vehicles operating in a real-life planned project to help the AGV integrator - most often the vehicle manufacturer - to optimize routes and actions and avoid potential bottlenecks.

A company might also use a simulator to test: how many different missions or routes are required, set charging schedules, optimise vehicle speeds, ensure smooth interaction with on-site equipment and to stress-test any software integrations.

Interacting with multiple brands

Many organisations that deploy AGVs or AMRs plan, over time, to expand their fleets, adding new and different types of automated vehicles to carry out an ever-broadening range of tasks.

But will a single AGV supplier offer every type of vehicle a user might require? This is not always the case.

The optimum solution then might require a mix of AGVs, AMRs and automated forklifts from different vendors.

Therefore it will be crucial to select a core vehicle automation platform that can drive these different solutions and manage the resulting multi-brand fleet. 

Fleet managers look to arrive at this goal in different ways, for example, by complying with evolving fleet management standards, such as VDA 5050 out of Germany.

Today, however, these standards are still providing fairly basic functionality and it may be several more years until such standards have matured fully and do not require additional custom development to make function at the highest level.

By contrast, there are vendor-specific solutions, such as the ANT server by BlueBotics, that offer a high level of fleet management and can manage interoperable brands, providing those vehicles are built upon that vendor's automation technology. 

Digitalisation ready 

AGV/AMR fleet management software is the brains of your automated vehicle operation.

Its functionality and performance will determine the success and efficiency of your entire AGV operation and there are significant differences among available options. 

When assessing automated vehicle solutions, pay at least as much attention to understanding software functionality as to the vehicle hardware itself, including understanding how it manages traffic flow, interacts with other site equipment, optimises fleet performance and interoperates with other brands. 

Make the right software choices now, and as industrial logistics and manufacturing operations become increasingly digitised, you will be well poised to reach new heights of efficiency and safety in your material handling operations.

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