Autonomous Mobile Robots: Types and Applications

Robotics is one of the fastest advancing fields of technology as it has the potential to substitute human input in many fields. 

These include surveillance, emergency rescue operations, planetary exploration, patrolling, reconnaissance, entertainment, petrochemical applications, industrial automation, construction, personal services, transportation, medical care, etc.

To unpack some aspects of robotics, today’s blog post shall focus on dissecting the specific vertical of autonomous mobile robots. 

What are autonomous robots?

Autonomous robots are essentially robots with the ability to intelligently think and navigate like humans.  As such, they don’t need human drivers but their software and the entire system self-pilots. 

In layman’s language, this means that such robots can ‘automatically’ make their own decisions and complete specific missions without human intervention via machine learning or AI mechanisms, such as delivering packages, inspecting an area, or manufacturing. 

However, not all robots are ‘automatic’ as some need manual intervention either via controls, manoeuvring or decision making. 

What are autonomous mobile robots?

Generally speaking, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can move without assistance from external human operators in an industrial plant,  laboratory, planetary surface, or on a fixed predetermined path. 

Such robots possess the ability to determine the actions to be taken to perform a specific task, using an intelligently programmed perception system. AMRs also require a cognition unit or a control system to coordinate all the subsystems that constitute the mobile robot.

Overall, AMRs maintain an array of complex sensors that enable them to comprehend and interpret their environment, which helps them to perform intricate or repetitive tasks in the most efficient manner and path possible, for instance, navigating around fixed obstructions in buildings, or variable obstructions like people, lift trucks, and debris.

Read our article on “AMR: The new look of AGV

AGV

Features of autonomous mobile robots

The mechanics of autonomous mobile robotics primarily revolve around four principles.

Locomotion 

The locomotive aspect of robotics relates to physical mechanics and kinematics, dynamics, and control theory. While humans haveactuatorscalled muscles, that come in different shapes and perform unique functions, like grabbing a cup of coffee or pumping blood. 

Autonomous robots are no different from mechanical actuators and motors that convert energy into movement, for example, wheels, linear actuators, or hydraulic ram, etc. 

Perception 

This feature leverages signal analysis and specialised fields like computer vision and sensor technologies. For humans, perception is mainly performed by our five senses, namely: eyes, ears, skin, hair, and other biological mechanisms that facilitate the process. 

For autonomous robots, perception is guided by sensors like laser scanners, stereo vision cameras, bump sensors, force-torque sensors, and even spectrometers that serve as ‘information’ input devices. 

These information inputs provide an endless supply of data acting as an ‘Internet of Things’ with a sea of sensors with very long wires reaching back to the mobile robots that might use them.

Cognition

This feature is responsible for intelligently analysing the input data from sensors and ingesting the corresponding actions to accomplish the technical objectives of the autonomous robot. 

Cognition features are basically in charge of the control system scheme, which is the “brain” or ‘computer’ of the robot that makes decisions based on its designated mission and any information it receives along the way. 

So cognitive mechanisms serve in a manner similar to the neurological system in humans. However, in robots, this ‘neurological’ system is called an embedded system, and operates faster and with higher authority than the computer executing a mission plan and parsing data. 

In practice, this is how autonomous mobile robots can decide to halt if they notice an obstacle in their way, or detect a problem.

Navigation

Navigation features help a robot to move in a known or unknown environment while taking into account the technical values of the sensors to achieve the set targets.

This means that the autonomous robot must rely on other elements, like perception (the robot must employ its sensors to obtain valuable data), localisation (the robot must know its present position and configuration), cognition (the robot must basically decide what to do to accomplish its goals), and motion control (the robot calculates its input forces on the actuators to achieve the sought trajectory). 

As such, developing navigation mechanisms necessitate knowledge of planning algorithms, information theory, and artificial intelligence.

Advantages of autonomous mobile robots

The main advantages of autonomous mobile robots are:

  • Increased productivity.
  • Lower labour costs and increased efficiency.
  • Increased flexibility and fast implementation as it isn’t necessary to predefine the routes robots machines need to follow, hence the deployment phase is significantly shortened. 
  • Advanced task accuracy also increases the safety and dexterity of robots when performing tasks.
  • Enhanced connectivity improves operation capabilities and serves as an additional source of actionable data of the inner workings of a facility. 

Types of autonomous mobile robots

Generally, in the context of industries and distribution centres, AMRs are split into three main categories:

  • AMRs that operate inventory within a facility. For instance, autonomous robots can transport orders across a warehouse or in a shipping facility countless times in a day, in different cycles.Transportation is a labour-intensive task, and employing robots for these tasks is one of the fastest ways to free up humans for more mission-critical tasks without disrupting workflows.
  • AMRs that assist in monotonous, repetitive processes. Many AMRs are designed specifically to reduce travel time associated with picking processes, thus empowering workers to do other jobs.With such AMRs, lift plates, and robotic arms can be almost completely automated, completing every step of the palletising process –from loading, transport, to unloading – all performed autonomously, efficiently, and accurately.
  • Sortation AMRs. These come in multiple forms like moving carts and mobile manipulation tools. These AMRs handle tasks like returns handling, raw materials transport, inventory management and sorting, and parcel sortation.

Applications of autonomous mobile robots

As has been noted, in warehousing and distribution centres, autonomous mobile robots essentially make processes and workflows more efficient and productive by performing non-value-added tasks like transporting, picking up, and dropping off products. 

As a result,  freeing up humans to perform other tasks that add value to a company’s operations, such as picking, or checking orders. Applications of AMRs cut across different spheres too. 

Fleet Management Systems (Warehouse Management) 

In fleet management systems (warehouse application), AMRs can be used in loading, unloading, stacking and retrieving palletised and large loads. They add greater flexibility in carrying out such tasks, which are touted as some of the costliest of fleet management operations.  

fleet management systems

Industry & Manufacturing  

AMRs can be used for cleaning and disinfection (can be used for in-house logistic and goods transfer automation) at manufacturing premises that need to keep hygienically clean. Essentially, autonomous robots offer a cost-effective way of accomplishing this by deploying automated cleaning and disinfection equipment wherever needed.

Considering the intricate shapes of such facilities, and the likelihood that potential obstacles can suddenly appear, the autonomous navigation of an AMR is crucially important in these applications. Additionally, AMRs guarantee that every square inch of the targeted area is well treated, especially in times of COVID-19. 

Additionally, AMRs combined with robotic arms can be employed to control valuable process inputs, perform regular monitoring tasks, and safely manage waste removal from the production line.

Check out this video to understand how AGVs work within an industry.

Hospitality 

AMRs offer hospitality businesses like conference venues and restaurants a way to automate servicing activities while also enabling safe and socially distanced customer service. 

For example, front-of-house hotel robots can deliver food, drinks and goods to guests in their rooms. Customers can then be sent a PIN code via text message to open up the robot and access their orders. 

The same principle is applicable to waiter services to deliver refreshments in any venue. Similarly, hotel housekeeping can employ AMRs as laundry trolleys which tend to clutter the corridors. 

Autonomous Security Robots 

Fitted with camera equipment, AMRs can provide a constant stream of video and data to a control centre. Furthermore, if necessary, the AMRs can be switched from autonomous to remote control mode so a security officer can critically observe anything suspicious. 

With their autonomous navigation abilities, AMRs can carry out extensive patrols without the need for human intervention whilst circumventing obstacles or changes in the environment. Additionally, those fitted with artificial intelligence capabilities can respond appropriately to a variety of events.

Not forgetting, AMRs tend to have superior sensory advantages over humans with low-light infrared vision and thermal vision capabilities, which detect activity invisible to human eyes. Furthermore, some advanced AMRs possess functions like facial and license plate recognition.

Hospitals & Healthcare

Hospitals can utilise AMRs to transport items like meals, linen, drugs, sterile supplies, cleaning equipment and waste. One key advantage of AMRs over trolleys pushed by humans is that they reduce human movements between areas. 

Hence, the potential for human-borne spread of viruses and bacteria, which is helpful, especially in times of COVID-19.

Read our article on: “How an AMR can help to fight COVID-19?

Relatedly, AMRs help address the traceability of materials and equipment as data collected by the AMR on its locations and activities can be sent to the AMR management system, and linked to scanned data on the labelled containers it transports.

For biopharmaceutical companies who need to comply with strongly regulated production processes (which are often labour intensive tasks), AMRs can be employed to sample and maintain cell culture processes that require constant monitoring on a 24/7 basis. 

As a result, with AMRs satisfactorily handling the repetitive tasks, medical professionals can focus on other vital steps of the biopharmaceutical manufacturing process like tracking of growth parameters, continuous testing, and making crucial scientific adjustments as development progresses.

Conclusion 

Overall, the mobile robotics space will continue to evolve in the next few years with significant advances in cognitive architecture, artificial intelligence, speech communication, and human-robot interaction.

Particularly, we should also be able to see increased applications of AMRs in defence and security, medicine, agriculture, health care, underwater exploration, domestic service, surveillance, space exploration etc. 

Overall, autonomous mobile robots will continue becoming more state-of-the-art with their groundbreaking applications in the logistics and distribution space, food industry, food processing, pick and place applications, autonomous driverless cars, and smart factories. 

As a result, having a profound effect on the way modern industries function. So, the future is bright!