Enhancing warehouse efficiency through cobots

Warehouse operators can use motion capture technology to increase the safe use of ‘cobots’ alongside humans to increase the efficiency of facilities

While the use of robots in our day-to-day lives may sound like science fiction, they have become an increasingly important tool for manufacturing operations, helping to perform core tasks including assembly, distribution, handling raw materials and product packaging. In fact, a recent report shows a record of 2.7 million industrial robots operating in factories across the globe.

Over the last few years we have seen a rapid acceleration of digital transformation in warehouses and factories and the implementation of smart warehouse management systems. The ultimate goal is to create an entirely autonomous warehouse — where processes are as streamlined and efficient as possible to serve an ever-growing demand for seamless logistics and faster deliveries.

Robots are the key to achieving this vision, and while we’re already seeing them in action within warehouses, there’s a growing need for a new generation of robots that are able to work seamlessly alongside humans – so-called ‘cobots’. But as robots and humans begin to work closer together, it’s vital to ensure the two can interact in a safe manner.

So how can we ensure human safety is placed first without restricting the efficiency gains that cobots offer?


The rise of the cobot

 In the past, warehouse robots have operated in caged-in areas away from human workers on the shop floor. But with cobots, we are removing any physical barriers and putting robots in spaces so they can work directly alongside their human colleagues.

To date, cobots have typically been small and lightweight machines that have used force sensors to avoid colliding with humans. The machines can also be quickly switched off in the event of accidental crashes — an obvious safety precaution that has served to help the expansion of the use of cobots.

The success of these early cobots means there’s now a growing demand for them to complete more complex or heavyweight manufacturing, logistics and material handling tasks. But this would require larger, heavy-duty equipment that’s designed for high-volume, extremely high-accuracy and high-speed production — posing a more significant threat to the cobots’ human counterparts.

Drones are a good example of this, and it’s no surprise they are growing in popularity. While the ‘airspace’ in a warehouse is currently empty, drones can turn this space into productive areas to move inventory across the warehouse faster and more accurately than human workers can manage.

Tech giants like Amazon are also trialling the use of drones to ship products straight from the warehouse to consumers for faster delivery at a lower cost. According to Business Insider, Amazon’s Prime Air delivery drones could be expected to ship out packages directly to the customer from the warehouse in 30 minutes or less for as little as $1.00.

But as the use of drones within warehouses increase — and more drones become capable of lifting heavier and heavier loads — the safety risk also significantly increase. An accidental collision with a human worker or a parcel being dropped onto someone’s head due to a faulty drone could be extremely dangerous, and in some cases, fatal.


Overcoming the engineering challenge

 While the successful coexistence of drones and robots with humans in warehouses can provide many benefits, it’s also unfortunately a significant engineering challenge. But to overcome this, motion capture technology is playing an increasingly important role in helping cobots to seamlessly integrate within human environments in a safe and secure way.

Motion capture — the process of recording the movement of objects or people — is now being used to improve robot control by tracking drones to analyse the interaction between humans and machines. Having visibility into this data can then be used to better recognise and avoid any potential obstacles, particularly in an environment where people may be moving around the shop floor quickly and erratically.

Through the use of motion capture, which can simultaneously process high volumes of real-time data and deliver fast response times, drones being used within a warehouse setting can be trained to react almost immediately — helping to avoid contact while maintaining a safe distance from humans at all times.

Recent research into human activity recognition and ergonomics in manufacturing carried by Technische Universität (TU) Dortmund, a leading technical university in Europe, is a great example of how motion capture is being used to improve drone tracking within warehouses.

The university used motion capture technology within its InnovationLab to deliver the visual and data evidence that was vital to guide the team’s understanding of human activity and drone tracking. Through the technology, TU Dortmund was able to improve robot control by tracking drones to analyse the interaction between humans and machines and help the drones to recognise and avoid human obstacles.

In one demo carried out by TU Dortmund, a person dressed in a motion capture suit was able to safely and successfully walk through a flock of 12 drones flying autonomously — showcasing the drones’ ability to react almost immediately and remain at a safe distance to avoid colliding with any obstacles.

In addition to motion capture technology, the university is also using machine learning (ML) to help drones recognise variations, for example, workers carrying boxes. This allows for the development of safety protocols and increases flexibility so drones won’t require a fixed infrastructure to successfully navigate an environment in future.


The future vision

 TU Dortmund’s recent work with motion capture technology has far-reaching implications and benefits for the coexistence of robots and humans in the manufacturing and logistics sector. And, in true open-source spirit, it plans to curate and share the data to make sure other researchers can access and use its findings.

Although this research clearly highlights the value that motion capture data can bring, it also proves the high level of sophistication that’s needed to make the fully autonomous warehouse a reality.

While technological advances in cobots are only set to increase, there’s still work that needs to be done to ensure they can operate safely and seamlessly as possible. As soon as cobots have the ability to work in harmony with humans, warehouse productivity and efficiency levels will increase at an exponential rate — benefiting not only the manufacturers, but brands, and ultimately consumers themselves.