In 2012, Amazon bought Kiva Systems for just over three quarters of a billion dollars, securing for itself virtually the entire large-scale robotic logistics market all at once. This was a particular problem for existing Kiva customers, including Quiet Logistics, who used Kiva robots to support centralized warehouse operations for a variety of clients. Once Quiet Logistics’ contract with Kiva ran out, they’d need to find some new robots.
Recognizing the enormous value that Kiva robots provided and the potential of the void that suddenly existed, a bunch of companies began to target the robotic warehouse fulfillment space. There’s Adept, Fetch, Clearpath, IAM Robotics, and Magazino, to name just a few. Rather than rely on a new platform from someone else, Quiet Logistics decided to develop its own fulfillment robot. Quiet’s internal robotics project was spun out into Locus Robotics in 2014, with $8 million in Series A funding announced this May. Bruce Welty is the chairman of Quiet Logistics, as well as the founder and chairman of Locus Robotics. We spoke to him about the problems he saw with Kiva’s robots, how to develop a robot from scratch, and why warehouse robotics is predominantly a software problem.
Locus’ robot is designed to work collaboratively with humans to fill orders in a warehouse. It’s a mobile base that can navigate autonomously using lidar to track its location in a pre-mapped area, with cameras and 2D barcodes for verification. Each robot knows the location of every item in the warehouse, and when an item needs to be picked for an order, the robot will navigate to that item and wait.
Humans workers are assigned to patrol warehouse zones, and when they see a robot waiting, the worker reads the item that it needs off the screen, picks it, and moves on. The robot then drives to the location of the next item that it needs, or heads for a shipping station. It’s a very efficient system, since humans aren’t carrying anything or having to roam all over a warehouse to fulfill one order: instead, they’re doing what they’re best at, which is identifying and picking objects off of shelves.
The following video is an excerpt from a talk by Mike Johnson, Locus Robotics’s president, that shows the system in action:...
Here’s our interview with Locus Robotics’ chairman Bruce Welty.
IEEE Spectrum: Can you give us a brief history of Locus?
Bruce Welty: Locus was incubated inside of Quiet Logistics: originally they were the same company. The reason that we started the company was that Quiet was a user of Kiva’s robots, and when Amazon acquired Kiva, we decided we needed our own technology. We actually started thinking about the design of this particular robot starting in about 2010, when we became familiar with Kiva. We liked a lot of things about Kiva, but there were also a lot of things about Kiva that we didn’t like. So, we were always thinking about the next generation of robots.
What didn’t you like about Kiva’s robots, and how did that inform your thinking about what you wanted to create with Locus?
The main things that we didn’t like about Kiva really came down to ease of use, expense, and safety. As you might imagine, the very first iteration of something is about making it work. So, Kiva wasn’t really that concerned about cost, or how much work it was to implement. They didn’t think about the implications of how much it weighed, or whether or not it was safe around people, since the robot space excluded people....MUCH MORE