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Fraunhofer Institute IML and KION Group— Swarm robotics will soon be making its way into warehouses in the shape of the new LoadRunner

The year is 2021. In the “Silicon Economy”—the digital platform economy of the future—swarms of vehicles organize themselves and communicate with humans, other swarms, and platforms to accomplish their missions. This may sound like science fiction, but it is already a reality in Dortmund, Germany. With the “LoadRunner”, the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML has set a global benchmark in swarm robotics, and developed a new generation of driverless transportation vehicles that use artificial intelligence and 5G communication to organize themselves independently in a swarm at high speeds, achieving huge sorting capacities. Together with KION, the little speedsters will now be further enhanced before being launched on the market. Tobias Zierhut, Head of KION Mobile Automation, explains what this means for the KION Group in an interview.


A high-speed swarm of small flat vehicles races across the hall floor and organizes itself by means of distributed, intelligent vehicle coordination. They pick up parcels completely autonomously and put them back down in the right place without colliding with each other. Scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML and experts from the KION Group have been working to enhance and scale the system at the joint “Enterprise Lab” in Dortmund. Their joint objective is to ready the prototype for market launch and thereby pave the way for a new generation of autonomous transport vehicles that will revolutionize intralogistics with artificial Intelligence (AI).

The Ideal Logistics Space Is an Empty One

The LoadRunner project is based on a vision of a future where logistics requires less infrastructure—a vision in which the ideal logistics space is empty. This is because the highly dynamic nature of today’s logistics can only be catered for with a high degree of flexibility and scalability. It must be possible to commission logistics facilities and dismantle technical systems quickly and at an optimal cost. With the LoadRunner, the scientists from Dortmund have come a step closer to realizing this vision. It represents the next logical step in developing concepts that are not permanently installed in the building infrastructure, and which can be used universally.

LoadRunners pick up parcels completely autonomously and put them back down in the right place without colliding with each other.

Parcel Sorting Should Be Even Faster

If you look at parcel sorting in today’s parcel distribution centers, while a trend toward smaller automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and vehicle-based sorting is emerging, most AGV sorting solutions operate in a grid. This means that the travel routes are perpendicular to each other, and avoiding collision is fairly easy. The disadvantage of this, however, is that vehicles potentially have to cover longer distances or wait if routes are blocked. Therefore, when developing their AGV, the Fraunhofer scientists focused not only on high flexibility, but also on high throughput, including speeding up the inward and outward transfer of goods.

A study conducted in September 2020 on the use of the LoadRunner in parcel sorting delivered promising initial results: well over 10,000 shipments per hour could theoretically be sorted by just 60 vehicles. The researchers modeled a sorting operation using different numbers of LoadRunners and different acceleration values. They also considered factors such as vehicle localization and collision avoidance. The results showed that as few as 60 LoadRunners achieve the performance range of classic sorting systems. More importantly, the LoadRunner is far less reliant on permanently installed infrastructure than conventional sorting systems. It offers significantly faster commissioning, dynamic performance adaptation, and greater scalability.

A single LoadRunner can transport and sort loads weighing up to around 30 kg on its own.


Currently, a LoadRunner can move with high dynamism at up to 10 m/s in a swarm. Where necessary, several vehicles and up to four passive trailers can magnetically link to one another to transport large and bulky parts. A single LoadRunner can transport and sort loads weighing up to around 30 kg on its own. This means that it can also be used, for example, for transporting and sorting luggage at airports.

LoadRunner Technology Is Close to a Breakthrough

In the KION Group, Fraunhofer IML has found a renowned industry partner that would like to license the LoadRunner technology to use in its group of companies. At the joint Enterprise Lab at Fraunhofer IML in Dortmund, the partners are readying the artificial intelligence-equipped autonomous vehicle swarm for launch on the market. Tobias Zierhut, Head of KION Mobile Automation explains what this means for the KION Group below.

Interview with Tobias Zierhut

Senior Vice President of KION Mobile Automation

Why did you choose to partner with the Enterprise Lab at Fraunhofer IML?

KION Group AG and Fraunhofer IML have been exchanging ideas for many years, and in the past, have also worked very successfully together, on the Dematic Multishuttle project, for example. We have followed all the research and development of the LoadRunner with great interest. We see this as the right time to join the project and take part in developing it further right up to industrialization. By investing in partnerships and developing autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), the KION Group has already taken significant steps toward expanding its solutions portfolio in recent years. We see the LoadRunner as a disruptive development toward AMR 2.0 that will take goods transportation in logistics and e-commerce to a whole new level.

What is the focus of your research at the lab?

Our research will focus on aspects of our customers’ sorting processes, by which I mean the distribution and allocation of goods in the logistics process. The range of relevant applications is extremely broad, running from parcel logistics to luggage logistics at airports. We also see the LoadRunner potentially contributing to future solutions in goods transportation. Applications which currently use conveyor belts could be realigned and streamlined—particularly for “just-in-time” goods deliveries in industrial manufacturing processes.

What benefits do you think the Enterprise Lab research offers?

The Enterprise Lab research enables KION to ensure close collaboration between theoretical research and practical implementation, including further development to ready the product for market. This collaboration gives us the opportunity to contribute specific aspects from the KION side so that we can set the course for enhancing the technology, including adapting the solutions to specific focus areas. To achieve this, employees from the Fraunhofer Institute are working closely with KION colleagues from the fields of Mobile Automation, Technology & Innovation as well as from the KION subsidiary Dematic, at the Dortmund site. Specialists from KION Energy Systems and KION Manufacturing & Engineering divisions are actively supporting them.

How important is the Enterprise Lab research in your overall strategy?

Because the KION Group’s portfolio covers such a broad spectrum, we naturally deal with a wide range of different developments. In LoadRunner, however, we see a great deal of disruptive potential for the future: a crucial solution to help provide greater flexibility and time savings in our customers’ applications.

How is the collaboration with Fraunhofer going so far?

The collaboration with the individual team members at Fraunhofer IML is and has been refreshing, solution-focused and constructive. The whole KION team is happy to continue working with them.