Last year I participated in the A3 conference on Autonomous Mobile Robots & Logistics, in Memphis. The location was no coincidence: Memphis is the global headquarters for FedEx, one of the largest logistics companies, with operations around the world. A highlight for me was being on stage with luminaries in the robotics space, including FedEx’s Aaron Prather.
“The robot manufacturers need to get interoperability addressed one way or another”
Aaron Prather, R&D at FedEx
Aaron made a forceful point during the session on robot interoperability, a topic that is core to InOrbit’s mission of maximizing the potential of every robot.
“So, if you are one of those companies that is on the fence, you’re gonna have to pick pretty quickly, because us end users, we know where we’re going.
And if you’re not onboard, there’s probably not going to be a second chance.
I’m being dead serious.”
There’s no ambiguity: Aaron clearly put robot developers on notice that they need to play well with the community, including other robot vendors and cloud solutions like InOrbit.
Fortunately, many robot vendors are listening and working on creating interoperability protocols. Daniel Theobald, CEO and founder of Vecna Robotics, is a key member of the MassRobotics team working on the AMR Interoperability standard. In a 2020 article, Theobald said the standard was a “crucial milestone for the industry,” adding that “it’s this pre-competitive collaboration and combined thinking from the greatest minds in the field that drive the sector forward exponentially faster than any one vendor could otherwise.”
Meanwhile work continues on other standards, such as a European association working on the VDA 5050 standard, and a project sponsored by the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute, with participation by Siemens Technology, FedEx, Yaskawa Motoman, Waypoint Robotics and the University of Memphis.
During my presentation earlier in the panel at the A3 conference, I showed a market map from Logistics iQ on the AGV-AMR market. I call it an eye chart, because there are so many logos that it’s hard to see the individual players – it lists more than 600 vendors, and because it’s easier, faster, and cheaper to create an AMR than ever, the map is only a subset with new companies entering the space regularly.
Back to Aaron: “Florian had that whole chart up there, there’s options out there. So the whole thing is, if you’re not in that eye chart … you’re going to have to really think about it.”
Aaron is one of the nicest and highly connected people in robotics today. He also has one of the coolest jobs in robotics: he gets to “play” with all the latest and greatest technology that could help FedEx automate at scale. I interviewed him earlier in the year for the RobOps Masters series I do for the Robot Operations Group, and he shared the following:
“FedEx is not alone as an end user in pushing interoperability as the thing we need to address (...) It would be great if one [company] can provide the robot that does all my stuff, [but] that’s not going to happen.”
He went on to explain: “I have so many use cases across the globe, each one’s different. As a [robot] manufacturer, do you really want to build my pallet-moving robot, and my package-moving robot, and my security robot, and my cleaning robot? And who knows what I’ll think of next, but I’ll need a robot for it.”
Aaron is a tireless advocate for robot interoperability. He doesn’t just advocate for FedEx’s own needs, but also for other logistics companies, consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands and even manufacturers in different industries.
At the A3 conference, Aaron said he had conversations with major manufacturers, who confirmed: “We need robots to do this over here, and this robot needs to cross that area in order to go do its mission. So it’s not just a logistics thing. Now, logistics is probably going to be the biggest driver of this, but we already have the big manufacturers saying: this is a problem too.”
Interoperability and its more advanced sibling Orchestration have always been a priority for InOrbit, but Aaron certainly highlighted it’s importance. Over the next few years, it will become critical for enterprises deploying robots to handle multi-branded fleets. Operation of these fleets will require not only a single pane of glass, but also an abstraction layer that allows for operators to have high robot uptime without the need to learn the terminology or specific functions that each robot vendor might use.