Sensors: Seeing a New, Mobile Future

Article from MHI Solutions Magazine

Innovation in the sensor arena—especially related to cameras and safety—is creating opportunities for increased functionality with AGVs and mobile robots.

With ever-advancing technologies, knowing when to invest and when to wait can be tricky. But if the question has anything to do with sensors for automated guided vehicles or mobile robots, Tyler Glieden, market product manager — industrial safety for MHI member SICK Inc., breaks it down with a bit of a humor. For those out there still relying solely on bumpers to mitigate impact, he said, “The business case is very easy: The time is now.”

Laughs aside, in recent years, the field has seen innovations in areas like 3D, multiple functions, smaller size, outdoor applications, accuracy, scanning angle, field switching, environmental navigation, collection of data and more. Better yet, even as advances are made, the cost of the technology has dramatically dropped “across the board,” noted Chris Cacioppo, CTO and co-founder of MHI member 6 River Systems.

“When we first started 6 River Systems, the first LiDARs (light detection and ranging systems) we looked at were tens of thousands of dollars, and we could not make a cost-effective solution with them,” said Cacioppo, whose company provides flexible and scalable warehouse automation powered by collaborative robots and artificial intelligence. “Today, you can get LiDARs for less than $1,000 and RGB-D (depth) sensors for significantly less than that… In my opinion, with the low cost and high processing power of cameras today, RGB-D cameras are really some of the most interesting sensors that have emerged recently.”

‘Amazing, incremental and transformative’

First things first: John Cameron, chief robotics engineer at MHI member IAM Robotics, recognizes that it can be tempting to keep an eye on the horizon for the next big thing. He’s excited, for example, by solid-state LiDAR solutions, in which all of the necessary components are encapsulated in a single chip, with no mechanical moving parts. Rather than lasers and sensors and gears spinning, constantly adjusting and taking up a lot of space, these new solutions can use an optical phased array as a transmitter instead, upping flexibility, efficiency and possibilities. Costs are coming down, improving accessibility, he said, but they’re still far from commonplace.