Heavyweight Freight Bots Could Replace the Forklift — and the Forklift Operator

Fetch Robotics's warehouse robots can carry 3,300 pounds and operate autonomously for up to nine hours on a single charge.

And in this corner, from the robotic heavyweight division…

California-based Fetch Robotics has unveiled two burly new warehouse robots that can carry up to around 3,300 pounds of cargo while operating autonomously for up to nine hours on a single charge.

Warehouse robots are nothing new — Amazon is really into them, for instance — but the burly Freight 500 and Freight 1500 machines represent a significant step for this emerging technology. With the advent of these heavyweight machines, the job of forklift operator may be next one on the robotic chopping block.

But then there are the safety concerns.

When you've got autonomous bots rolling around the workplace with a ton-and-a-half of payload stacked up, people tend to get nervous.

Fetch's new heavyweight contenders were announced this week at the ProMat 2017 trade show in Chicago, billed as the “premier showcase of material handling, supply chain, and logistics solutions in North America.”

The two new robots are essentially bigger cousins of Fetch's existing Freight bot, designed to replace handtrucks or trolleys in warehouse settings. The Freight bot is programmed to follow around human workers like a kind of mechanical porter, using real-time motion tracking and obstacle avoidance to avoid collisions.

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While the original Freight bot could only carry 220-pound loads, the new robots can support as much as 3,300 pounds. This allows warehouse workers to handle a much wider range of containers, up to and including full-size pallets that otherwise require a forklift and driver.

The Freight 500 is designed for medium-sized loads. It can fit through standard-width doorways and hallways, for instance. The Freight 1500 is for serious warehouse settings where pallets get moved around regularly. All Freight bot are shorties, just 14 inches off the ground, assembled with the requisite hardware for heavy duty lifting. But with autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), it's really the software that counts.

Freight bots use laser-based LIDAR sensors and 3D cameras to constantly assess their environment. This is where the safety element comes in. Integrated mapping software combines the long-range laser system with the short-range 3D cameras to provide imaging in all directions. The Freight bots not only navigate around stationary objects, they can assess the trajectory of moving objects — people or other robots — and use machine learning algorithms to determine the safest course of action.

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Depending on the task, the new tough-guy Freight bots can be programmed to run preset routes, follow a human worker through a given facility, or navigate their own route to a destination. Additional front and back standard video cameras can be outfitted with supplementary safety or security applications. When they're not carrying loads, Fetch bots can patrol your facility as mechanized security sentries.

Fetch Robotics is just one of several AMR companies aiming to fundamentally change the way warehouse logistics will operate in the 21st century. While exact pricing isn't yet available, the new Freight models will likely be in the five-figures range. Considering that they don't need lunch breaks, or health care coverage, they're likely to be an increasingly popular option for management.

Maybe it's time to consider solidarity and teach the robots about collective bargaining.

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