AMR vendors are working together to consolidate industry standards for smoother real world applications.
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MassRobotics Protocol Represents a Vendor-led Solution to Interoperability
MassRobotics, a Massachusetts-based consortium of robotics vendors and academic groups, formed a working group in 2020 focused on building a framework of interoperability between different robotic systems. This group, comprised of Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) vendors, engineers, and AMR end-user companies, recently published a consortium-built standard to guide robotic automation interoperability and take a step toward this future. Members of the MassRobotics AMR Interoperability Working Group and contributors to publication of the standards include Vecna Robotics, 6 River Systems, Waypoint Robotics, Locus Robotics, Seegrid, MiR, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Third Wave Automation, and Open Source Robotics Foundation, all of which are major players in the industry.
It was argued that AMR systems operating fleets may not need to share availability and capability of each robot outside of their network, but at a high level, there needs to be an understanding between the AMRs and potentially a way of communicating keep out areas and safe zones to operate. It was decided that the initial interoperability standard would focus on rudimentary information sharing as opposed to more challenging applications like task allocation. The information sharing criteria covered by the initial standard include:
- Common reference location
- Current location and future destination
- Manufacturer name and model
- AMR unique identifier (RFC 4122 standard)
- Categories for data
- A robot’s state (active vs idle and available vs not available)
- Common reference location (GPS or reference points)
- Defining future position and destination
- Frequency of messaging
- Synchronous vs asynchronous messaging
The first use case will be trialed at a FedEx facility where AMRs from Waypoint Robotics, Vecna Robotics, and others will be operating in the same area. Waypoint and Vecna differ in that the former develops unit load AMRs, while the latter develops tuggers. This case study will serve as the groundwork for more complex interoperability scenarios involving articulated arms and non-material handling robots, like scrubbers and inventory tracking systems.
A Regulatory Approach from Germany
MassRobotics is not the only group interested in developing interoperability standards. The VDA, a German automotive regulator, released its VDA5050 protocol for interoperability between automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in industrial environments in 2019. There is a distinction between MassRobotics which is developing a standard for AMRs, and VDA5050, which is primarily concerned with AGVs as opposed to AMRs.
Despite all the good intentions, VDA5050 has not been warmly received by all vendors, with IGV developer AGILOX being particularly critical. AGILOX runs on a swarm-based distributed fleet management system with no central computer. A centralized fleet management system is presupposed as standard in VDA5050. Considering the German car industry is a major customer for AGVs, and with BMW moving into mobile robotics via Ideal works, these multi-billion-dollar stakeholders will use their clout to set industry safety standards. Currently, responses from many AMR vendors are lukewarm, and there is more reception for MassRobotics’s more permissive attempt to achieve interoperability.
While the MassRobotics announcement is a major step towards interoperability, it is currently only involving a small number of vendors. What is more, it does not yet consider interoperability between fixed robotic production lines and AMRs.
There are a number of key interoperability challenges that need to be considered for the industry to move forward with mixed fleets:
- Fleet Management: Understanding where each asset is operating is critical for charging, understanding the workflow, and making sure that downtime is minimized for all systems.
- Task management: Managing and allocating tasks for different robots from separate vendors is more challenging than fleet management.
- Infrastructure sharing: Different vehicles using similar sensors or RTLS infrastructure (UWB and so forth).
- Hardware and Task Interoperability: Combining material handling applications with cleaning, inventory tracking, and with fixed articulated robots.
When these challenges are covered by the various pilot tests that the MassRobotics consortium plans to complete over the next two years, ABI Research believes that larger end users will be much more comfortable in ordering more AMRs from a wider array of vendors. This will have a multiplier effect for an industry where vertical integration is prohibitive for one company. One can expect individual vendors to specialize more as interoperability protocols become more capable. This will also empower smaller vendors coming to market and will allow for more experimentation on the part of the end user.