Robots to organise themselves like a swarm of insects

Researchers in Germany are developing robotic vehicles for transporting goods around a warehouse that organise themselves like a swarm of insects.

The autonomous Multishuttle Moves vehicles, developed at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) in Dortmund, operate without the need for a central controller to allocate tasks and give precise instructions.

When the warehouse receives an order, the shuttles communicate with one another via a wireless internet connection and the closest free vehicle takes over and completes the task.

‘The driverless transport vehicles are locally controlled. The intelligence is in the transporters themselves,’ said Thomas Albrecht, head of IML’s Autonomous Transport Systems department.

‘We rely on agent-based software and use ant algorithms based on the work of [swarm robotics expert] Marco Dorigo. These are methods of combinational optimisation based on the model behaviour of real ants in their search for food.’

According to a statement, the researchers are operating 50 shuttles developed with material-handling and logistics automation company Dematic in a 1,000m2 replica warehouse comprising storage shelves for 600 small-part carriers and eight picking stations.

The vehicles move around the warehouse without external instruction using a hybrid sensor concept based on radio signals, distance and acceleration sensors and laser scanners to work out the shortest route to any destination and avoid collisions.

‘In the future, transport systems should be able to perform all of these tasks autonomously, from removal from storage at the shelf to delivery to a picking station. This will provide an alternative to conventional materials-handling solutions,’ said Prof Michael ten Hompel, executive director at IML.

The autonomous system is considerably more flexible and scalable than conventional materials-handling technology with roller tracks, according to Albrecht, because it can easily be adapted to cover a larger or smaller area according to fluctuations in demand.

It also enables vehicles to follow the shortest path to their destination instead of having to avoid obstructions from other materials-handling technology. The researchers now hope to show how this improvement in in-house logistics will benefit companies economically.