Robot 'rosetta stone' will unify the bots

With demand for robots surging, manufacturers bet interoperability will help whole sector.

Robots learn to talk to one another

Robotics, once a fractured field of scrappy tech startups, is starting to come of age. The latest proof is a set of interoperability standards that will allow Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) from leading vendors to integrate and work together in settings like factories, warehouses, and ecommerce fulfillment centers. 

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MassRobotics, an independent non-profit, recently released the MassRobotics Interoperability Standard to allow units from competing automation marques to seamlessly interact. Initial participating vendors include Vecna Robotics, 6 River Systems, Waypoint Robotics, Locus Robotics, Seegrid, MiR, Autoguide Mobile Robots, Third Wave Automation, and Open Robotics Foundation, all leaders in the AMR space.

"The release of version 1.0 of the MassRobotics Interoperability Standard is a crucial milestone for the industry," said Daniel Theobald, CEO of Vecna Robotics and co-founder of MassRobotics. "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."

In other words, the thinking here is that a rising tide will lift all ships. There's always been a strain of collaborative collegiality in the industry, which is tight knit and largely fed on the engineering side by a handful of powerhouse robotics grad programs and storied development labs. Many robotics companies utilize the open source Robot Operating System (ROS), which lives under the stewardship of Open Robotics.

But to be sure, a big part of the willingness to collaborate is the surging demand for automation attributed to the unrestrained rise of ecommerce and the corresponding expectation of fast fulfillment. The global AMR and Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) market is expected to reach $14 billion by 2026, with more than 270 vendors leading the manufacturing and logistics space, according to Logistic IQ. AMR adoption is growing with a CAGR of roughly 45 percent between 2020 and 2026.

In that environment, it makes sense for competing vendors to build in interoperability. With logistics companies expanding and already benefiting from the flexibility afforded by the current spate of AMRs, which can be integrated into existing operations with minimal downtimes, a paradigm in which buyers are locked into a specific automation manufacturer limits  growth potential across the sector. An interoperable paradigm, by contrast, bolsters the case for automation among potential customers and potentially gives competing automation manufacturers multiple bites at the apple. A warehouse that already uses pick-and-place machines from Brand A can now buy integrate AMRs from Brand B into the same operation. The integration is also safer, as the systems can share information, something that previously wasn't possible.

This all came together fairly quickly during the pandemic, corresponding to a major surge in ecommerce demand — the MassRobotics AMR Interoperability Working Group was formed in 2020. The group's newly issued standard allows robots of different types to share status information and operational conventions, or "rules of the road," so they can work together more cohesively on a warehouse or factory floor. The standard also enables the creation of operational dashboards so managers can gain insights into fleet productivity and resource utilization.

"Functional and practical standards are a critical next step for robotic automation," said Tom Ryden, executive director, MassRobotics. "Our AMR Interoperability Working Group has diligently focused on development and testing of these standards, which are needed now, and we fully expect will evolve as the robotics industry and end-user companies implement them. We encourage buyers to begin looking for the MassRobotics Interoperability Standard compliance badge when making purchasing decisions."

In part, the effort was driven by customers operating major shipping and distribution centers, which by necessity have cobbled together automation systems from multiple vendors to provide for a range of applications. 

"Support for this effort has been broad, and we are indebted to numerous companies and individuals for donating so much time and expertise to the development of this standard," said Theobald. "This important technology lays the groundwork for future innovation and concrete value for customers worldwide."

The first use case for the new interoperability standards will be trialed at a FedEx facility where AMRs from Waypoint Robotics, Vecna Robotics, and others will be operating in the same production area.

"I applaud the Working Group for their efforts and dedication in laying out these first steps toward AMR interoperability. The diversity of the team shows that the industry can work together in finding solutions around this issue," said Aaron Prather, senior advisor, FedEx. "Our interoperability validation in Memphis later this year will be a great real-world application of Version 1.0's capabilities and will help to provide feedback to the Working Group to potentially demonstrate what future steps may need to be taken to make further improvements."