Robot forklift

Researchers in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory are developing a forklift that could prove useful in war zones.

Researchers in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are developing a semi-autonomous forklift that could prove useful in war zones.

Currently, when supplies arrive at military outposts, people driving forklifts unload the pallets and put them into storage, and later load them onto trucks to take the material to where it is needed. These forklift operators must often scramble for cover, slowing the work and putting them at risk.

When completed, the new robotic device will provide a safer way to handle pallet-loaded supplies, said Matt Walter, a CSAIL post-doctoral researcher with a lead role in the project. The device is also designed to operate outdoors on uneven terrain such as gravel or packed earth.

Walter said: ‘In Iraq, it has not been uncommon for workers to have to abandon the forklift three or four times a day because they come under fire.

‘A lot of the work could be automated, thus alleviating people’s exposure to danger, but it’s a very difficult task.’

The forklift is designed to operate autonomously with direction from a human supervisor who could be physically nearby, or safely ensconced in a remote bunker.

In an initial training phase, the forklift learns the basic layout of the storage depot facility, such as where the reception area is, where incoming supply trucks arrive with a load of pallets ready to be stored, and where the storage areas are for those pallets to be deposited. The forklift can then be commanded to transport pallets from one place to another within the depot.

Determining which pallets to pick up and where they need to go requires guidance from a human supervisor, at least for now. The supervisor’s tablet computer, wirelessly linked to the forklift, displays the view from the forklift’s forward-looking video camera.

Using stylus gestures on the image, the supervisor indicates the truck to be unloaded, the pallet to be engaged next, and perhaps where on the pallet to insert the forklift tines. The supervisor also speaks to the tablet, indicating the desired destination of the target pallet. As the system gets more sophisticated, the supervisor would need to do even less.

But to ensure that it can always carry out the necessary tasks, if there is ever a problem with the automated system, the machine reverts to a conventional manned forklift whenever someone climbs into the operator’s cabin.

The forklift project has involved MIT staff as well as individuals from the Lincoln Laboratory, Draper Laboratory and BAE Systems. It has been funded by the US Army Logistics Innovation Agency.