At OTTO Motors, a division of Clearpath Robotics in Waterloo, you can hear the melodic beeps of OTTO —an industrial self-driving vehicle (SDV) for autonomous pickup and delivery of materials indoors.

Robots in manufacturing are nothing new. There are plenty of pick-and-pack systems that roam shelves to select items and drop them into waiting bins; automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that have their own travelling lanes for carrying inventory. There are also massive gantry crane systems that move containers within storage areas. However, advancements in optical sensing, artificial intelligence and sensor technologies are now turning these workhorse systems into something much more interactive and productive, and redefining how companies move inventory.

OTTO is the evolution of the automated guided vehicle (AGV) and uses advanced sensors and artificial intelligence to provide flexible automation that does not require fixed infrastructure (no beacons, magnetic tape or pre-defined laser paths).

Smart self-driving vehicles offer major business advantages

Beyond the novelty factor, the latest generation of intelligent robots offers considerable business value. OTTO is helping companies combat an aging workforce, growing labour shortages and high turnover rates. Self-driving vehicles like OTTO can also take on dangerous tasks to reduce the chance of workplace injuries.

Our industrial robots help people be more productive. It helps remove low value, boring, and often hazardous tasks from their daily jobs. And a number of businesses are recognizing that.

- Ryan Gariepy, CTO and co-founder of Clearpath Robotics and OTTO Motors.

In addition, self-driving vehicles help reduce complexity, lower costs, are more accurate and can relieve the burden of material movement so workers have more time to focus on higher value activities. As a result, they help companies stay competitive.

"The latest robotics innovations definitely have a strong future in commercial applications such as warehouse facilities," says Simon Drexler, Director of Product for OTTO Motors. "The market is driven to automate the world's dullest, dirtiest and deadliest jobs and the economic and human benefits are undeniable."

High tech start led to practical innovation

Clearpath's plans didn't start with industrial robots. The company is the brainchild of a team of mechatronics students from the University of Waterloo, who, upon graduating, began work in 2009 on unmanned vehicles for research purposes. They soon realized that the same technology could easily move from the loftier realms of space research and mine mapping to address the more common manufacturing ground.

"We've had manipulation and assembly robots for years," Drexler says. "The problem with a lot of them is that they are fixed, not flexible; reactive, not proactive; and adoptive, not adaptive. In others words, plants have had to adapt to them versus the robots adapting to their surroundings."

Looking to the future, the company is looking to how concepts in machine learning can be used to enhance its technology to better handle the "corner cases" — problems that occur outside of normal operating parameters.

"Machines are great at doing the same thing and operating in predictable environments, but humans are really great at handling the corner cases. What we're starting to look at is where can we use other concepts of artificial intelligence and machine learning to handle those corner cases," explains Gariepy

Today, Clearpath has grown to be the largest robotics company in Canada that develops smart, autonomous robots. The company has a staff of 180, and has already shipped robots to major manufacturers across the globe. Customers include GE (also a strategic investor), John Deere, Toyota, and Caterpillar.

Warehouse robots at work

OTTO Motors has two models — the OTTO 1500 for heavy loads, and OTTO 100, a smaller model for lighter loads. The sophisticated inner workings of these robots allow them to do more than just follow designated lanes. In fact, they work in and around humans regardless of where they are. That's because these friendly manufacturing companions use laser-based perception and artificial intelligence to determine when they need to stop or move off a chosen path to make way for obstacles and people. More specifically, OTTO employs onboard sensors and software to understand its environment and adapt to changes in real-time.

Disclaimer: this video links to a third party source. This video is not hosted by the Government of Ontario and there may not be a French version or transcripts available.

Connected technologies lay the groundwork for innovative products

Drexler says a number of interconnected technologies have been instrumental in getting robotics technology to a more practical level today. They include the cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), mobile and big data.

"For example, if cell phones didn't exist, we wouldn't have OTTO. The development of lithium ion batteries used in cell phones has been a game changer."

In fact, OTTO incorporates advanced lithium based power cells, which can charge in the same time that workers take their breaks. If these robots follow this break schedule, they'll remain charged through the end of the shift.

All of that adds up to some compelling robotic innovation where you might not have expected it. As Drexler says, "Industry 4.0 has come to the logistics world."

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