A travel map for forklifts

Automated forklifts need signposts, data and directions to navigate their routes. In short, they need digital maps of workshops and warehouses. At the moment, the creation of such maps is a complex task and the KION Group is therefore aiming to establish standards through the Industrial Indoor-Localisation (IIL) research project.

“One of the most challenging tasks that the KION Group has set itself is increasing the machines’ degree of freedom."

Tino Krüger-Basjmeleh, Senior Robotics Expert, KION Mobile Automation

Designing a map is easy. You simply have to chart all features, right? Well actually it is somewhat more complex. Political maps look different to topographic maps, hiking maps and relief maps. While they may all depict the same geographic area, they require completely different types of information. The same principle applies when drawing up a map of a warehouse. “Today, a team of digitizers can easily map a warehouse using their measuring equipment,” says Tino Krüger-Basjmeleh, Senior Robotics Expert, KION Mobile Automation. “But the map would be useless to a producer of automated transport systems because it would not include features such as reflectors.”

Future market currently wasting potential

Automated vehicles require maps that either enable them to orientate themselves, or to be programmed to follow specific routes. “Numerous automation projects fail because there is always some upfront effort and cost involved in producing the maps,” says Krüger-Basjmeleh. “Many customers lose interest at this point.” In other words, there is a growing future market whose potential cannot be exploited because the necessary standards are lacking. The dawning era of automation needs a mapping standard: a map that is able to serve the various requirements of machines and vehicles as accurately as possible. Moreover, it should be as easy as possible for humans to operate and amend them, even if they are not engineers – if they simply want to draw in a virtual wall to prevent an automated forklift truck from taking a particular route, for example. To summarize, such maps should be flexible, compatible and easy to implement.

The KION Group (STILL EMEA Operating Unit) has joined forces for the research project with two competing sensor manufacturers Pepperl+Fuchs and Sick, several research institutions and universities, and Jungheinrich, a competitor. An unusual team? “This task exceeds the expertise of just one single company,” explains Krüger-Basjmeleh. “Pre-competitive, joint research is essential.” An individually developed solution would not be the type of standard that would win over potential clients. Such maps are useful for many other services besides navigation, such as quality assurance and documentation. According to Krüger-Basjmeleh the real competitors are from Asia and the US. “We have said to everyone, let’s figure this out together.” A further advantage is that all stakeholders are based in Hamburg which makes communication easier.

“Where exactly am I?”

The research project was initiated in September 2017 and Krüger-Basjmeleh is happy with the results so far. “We have a great initial overview of all the necessary information, and ideas on how the maps can be visualized and amended in a meaningful way.” The project partners are working on a service they have called RAIL, an acronym for Reference Architecture Indoor Localization. The mapping standard should enable various degrees of accuracy and services, including geolocation, the transportation of goods and remuneration management. “One of the reasons Google Maps is so successful is because everyone is able to use it for different purposes,” explains Krüger-Basjmeleh. RAIL should similarly act as a springboard that enables users to find the quickest or simplest route from a vehicle to a pallet, for example. Nonetheless there are also many other factors that come into question, such as localization. “Without precise information on my location, I cannot plan what route to take,” says Krüger-Basjmeleh. “So the first question is: where exactly am I?”

The vision is ultimately for trucks to also be able to transmit information using their sensors when they discover obstacles. “One of the most challenging tasks that the KION Group has set itself is increasing the machines’ degree of freedom,” says Krüger-Basjmeleh. Equally, it is one of the most important projects for the future and one that requires Group-wide team work and involve the brands. Creating a standard for warehouse maps could enable the KION Group to break into markets that have not even been addressed yet. The second phase of the research project is set to begin in 2019. “We have taken a major step, but there is still a lot more work to do.”

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