Robots Already Are Driving Vehicles for a Supermarket

November 18, 2015, 3:35 PM UTC
Courtesy of Seegrid Corp.

Robots aren’t permitted to drive automobiles on roads just yet, but they already are taking the controls of machines that move pallets — portable platforms that carry goods — at a grocery warehouse near Pittsburgh.

The Giant Eagle regional supermarket chain uses four pallet trucks at its Grafton, Pa. center to move merchandise around the warehouse and into trucks bound for its stores. The vision technology that guides the robots, invented at Carnegie Mellon University, could be an enabler of the self-driving cars of the future, such as prototypes under development at Google (GOOG).

Robots have been playing a growing role in manufacturing for decades, taking over jobs from workers that are repetitive, dangerous or difficult, such as welding car bodies. The latest generation of robots is able to approximate human decision-making, using sensors to gain information and then decide what action to take, based on programmed instructions. In May, Daimler Trucks became the world’s first manufacturer to be granted a road license for a robot-driven truck on a public highway, which will allow the company to test the technology until it is ready for commercialization.

GP8 Pallet TruckCourtesy of Seegrid Corp.

Seegrid Corp., located in Coroapolis near Pittsburgh, has sold about 300 of its $100,000 vision-guided pallet handlers and other machines to a diverse assortment of manufacturers including Daimler AG’s North American truck operations. Sales are “growing very fast,” says Jim Rock, chief executive.

Conventional automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are computer-controlled mobile carriers that move through factories carrying and delivering parts and materials, following buried wires, tape or laser along a preset route. Seegrid’s vehicles, by contrast, learn a route by “seeing” as it travels. The visual record is then converted to computer code. The vehicle then can respond to directions, recognizing routes by matching what it sees to what it learned.

“Wires and lasers and tapes require engineering and alterations each time the route changes,” said Rock. “Our system tracks a route or many routes. That knowledge is committed to the machine’s memory. It’s infinitely flexible and changeable.”

Rob Kuchta, a Giant Eagle manager, said “You walk with it one time to show it what you want it to do.” Seegrid software instructs the AGVs to stop at intersections when it sees another vehicle. “It’s smart enough to say, ‘I’m going to let this one pass.’”

Hans Moravec, an adjunct professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, is the company’s founder and still its chief scientist. Moravec invented and pioneered three-dimensional “evidence grid” technology at Carnegie Mellon in the 1990s. The knowledge allows the visual world to be charted and mapped in three dimensions so robots can sense and interpret their environment.

Although Seegrid is deploying its vision technology mainly to help customers save costs and time handling materials in factories, the company is looking for other applications. Rock says the visual technology could be useful “to augment current approaches” to autonomous cars, “not as a replacement.”

Most autonomous car prototypes already use global positioning satellites, as well as radar, lidar and cameras. Automakers are now saying they expect cars within five to ten years will be able to take over many of the tasks now performed by drivers, though many unanswered questions remain regarding regulations as well as technical question marks pertaining to road infrastructure.

“Lidar units are expensive, use moving parts and must be installed as blobs on the top of the vehicle,” Rock said. Lidar — a fusion of “light” and “radar”— uses laser and its reflection to chart the position of objects. “Ours have no moving parts and can be built into the coach work of the body, or behind the windows and lenses, so the designers of the vehicles wouldn’t have to compromise.”

Seegrid, which employs 80, is recovering from a financial battering and internal squabbling that led to its bankruptcy a little more than a year ago, as well as to the exit of its previous CEO. The company says its client list is a Who’s Who from Fortune’s 500 top U.S. companies, though almost all decline to be identified. Manufacturers frequently won’t publicly name suppliers for competitive reasons, as well as liability.

The company, which was reorganized under supervision of the federal bankruptcy court in January, got an injection fresh financing from privately-held Giant Eagle, its majority shareholder and an enthusiastic customer. With Seegrid’s fresh start, Rock said the company is hiring aggressively.

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