Mobile robots and autonomous vehicles: Coronavirus pushes logistic automation up the agenda

Amazon announced that it planned on hiring 100,000 extra workers to meet the rise in demand for online shopping created by Coronavirus-caused shutdowns and social distancing. On 19 March 2020, unions said workers were demanding that Amazon takes their lives seriously. The night before a facility in Queens, NY, had been closed for deep cleaning after an employee tested positive for the virus. There are reports that some Amazon warehouse workers in Italy and Spain have tested positive. In France, several hundred Amazon workers protested to demand better measures to protect their safety. In Italy, there have been calls for a strike. This and similar developments once again bring into focus the motivation, and at times the imperative, to increase automation in the logistics and delivery chain.

IDTechEx have been examining the technological and commercial trends in this field for several years. Their report “Mobile Robots, Autonomous Vehicles, and Drones in Logistics, Warehousing, and Delivery 2020-2040” focuses on automation of movement in every step of the logistics and delivery chain ranging from a warehouse or a factory to the delivery of goods to the final customer destination. This landscape – and therefore, the scope of the report – includes the following:

  1. Automated guide carts and vehicles
  2. Autonomous mobile industry vehicles (forklifts, tugs, etc.)
  3. Goods-to-person automated carts/robots
  4. Collaborative autonomous mobile robots
  5. Mobile picking robot (regular- and irregular-shaped items)
  6. Autonomous trucks (level 4 and 5)
  7. Delivery vans and pods (level 4 and 5)
  8. Last-mile side-walk delivery robots
  9. Delivery drones 

The emerging technology research firm finds that this market – in total – will reach $81 and $290 billion in 2030 and 2040, respectively. This is a colossal transfer of value from wage expenses to a combination of capital investments and service subscription to autonomous robots of various types. This staggering headline is, of course, very large, and hides the key individual trends characterizing each technology and use case. In the remainder of this article, IDTechEx analysts seek to highlight the key trends. 

Goods-to-person automated carts/robots

Large fleets of robots are already deployed to help automate the goods-to-person step in many fulfilment centres. These robots move racks within robot-only zones, bringing them to manned picking stations. 

This is a fast-growing market space. The landscape was set on fire when Amazon acquired Kiva Systems for $775M in 2012, thereby leaving a gap on the market. Today, significant well-funded alternatives such as GeekPlus (389$M), GreyOrange (170$M), and HIK Vision ($6Bn revenue) have emerged, achieving promising and growing deployment figures. The number of start-ups has also increased, especially within the 2015-2017 period. 

IDTechEx forecasts the annual unit sales to double within six years. Despite the large deployments already, they assess the real global inflection point to arrive around 2024 beyond at which point the pace of deployment will dramatically accelerate. Indeed, the research firm forecasts that between 2020 and 2030, more than 1 million such robots will be sold accumulatively. It is, therefore, an exciting time. To learn more, please visit www.IDTechEx.com/Mobile.

Collaborative autonomous mobile robots

Another major trend is the use of autonomous mobile robots and vehicles. Autonomous mobile robots are emerging, which offer infrastructure-independent navigation in defined indoor environments. These robots boost productivity and enable many hybrid human-robot interaction modes. They can also bring automation to warehouses and fulfilment centres which were not specifically designed and built to support robotic goods-to-person. 

The technology is enabled by better SLAM algorithms. The algorithms – based on different sensors, including stereo camera and 2D lidars – are evolved enough to handle safe autonomous navigation within many structured indoor environments with a high degree of control and predictability. 

The technology options however are still many, and choices have long-lasting strategic consequences. The business models are also various and evolving. Some are offering their technology as RaaS (robot as a service). 

There have also been some notable recent acquisitions. Amazon acquired a company focused on camera-based navigation, which would enable object detection and classification, and thus more intelligent navigation. Shopify acquired a firm with a full solution,including the entire software stack. Overall, the IDTechEx report “Mobile Robots, Autonomous Vehicles, and Drones in Logistics, Warehousing, and Delivery 2020-2040” forecasts that more than 200k robots could be sold within the 2020-2030 period (this figure includes those that can perform picking of regularly or irregularly shaped items). 

The report “Mobile Robots, Autonomous Vehicles, and Drones in Logistics, Warehousing, and Delivery 2020-2040” provides a comprehensive analysis of all the key players, technologies, and markets. It includes technology roadmaps and twenty-year market forecasts, in unit numbers and revenue, for all the technologies outlined at the beginning of the article (13 forecast lines). It offers a twenty-year model because IDTechEx’s technology roadmap suggests that these changes will take place over long timescales. In their detailed forecasts, the report clearly explains the different stages of market growth.

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