Autonomous developments of forklift trucks and pallet jacks

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:

A European project is underway to develop a fleet of autonomous forklift trucks to operate alongside human workers on factory floors. Broadly known as automated guided vehicles (AGVs), tasks include packing, palletising and transporting goods on forklift trucks and pallet jacks.

The four-year project, called ILIAD (Intra-Logistics with Integrated Automatic Deployment), is funded with a major grant of €7 million from the EU’s Horizon 2020 fund and involves robotics specialists in the UK, Sweden, Italy and Germany. ILIAD will deliver significant technological advances into a single integrated system ready for easy, low-cost deployment and without the need for major infrastructure investments.

A key requirement is that each robot is ‘human aware’ – equipped with advanced computer vision and artificial intelligence to detect, track and predict the behaviour of humans and to plan movements based on the machines’ own observations of warehouse lay-outs and patterns of activity.

Crucially, each robotic vehicle will be self-optimising, learning from self-collected data over time, making the fleets fully scalable with the option of adding or removing robots at any time.

The researchers will use the fresh food sector as their development setting due to the industry’s particularly challenging requirements: short shelf life of products, need for complete traceability, high cost of wastage, and pressure for rapid responses to changing market needs.

The food industry is the largest manufacturing sector in Europe with an annual turnover of a trillion Euros, supporting more than four million jobs. The UK food industry is worth £100bn to the UK economy annually.

Professor Tom Duckett, director of the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems (L-CAS) at University of Lincoln, and principal investigator on the project, said: "The fleets will be self-deploying and self-optimising, removing much of the capital cost and disruption of introducing robotic technologies. Most importantly, though, we will show that autonomous vehicles can operate safely and efficiently alongside human co-workers and human driven vehicles in complex, dynamic warehouse settings.

“The project will push the state-of-the-art in human-robot interaction, overcoming persistent barriers to greater adoption of automation in logistics operations in many industries, starting with the food sector."

The team will will develop qualitative models for human-robot spatial interaction, systems architecture and systems integration. The work will include experimental testing at University of Lincoln's National Centre for Food Manufacturing in Holbeach, Lincolnshire.

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