Future Challenges of Coordinating Hundreds of Autonomous Vehicles in Distribution Facilities

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Future challenges of coordinating hundreds of autonomous vehicles in distribution facilities Raffaello D’Andrea, ETH Zurich, Switzerland, rdandrea@ethz.ch Peter Wurman, Kiva Systems, Woburn, MA, pwurman@kivasystems.com Abstract—The Kiva Mobile Fulfillment System (Kiva MFS) uses a breakthrough new approach to order fulfillment - one that simultaneously improves productivity, speed, accuracy, and flexibility. With the Kiva MFS, operators stand still while the products come to them. Pallets, cases, and orders are stored on inventory pods that are picked up and moved by hundreds of mobile robotic drive units. As a result, any product can go to any operator. The largest installation to date is a 500 robot system for an office supply company in the United States. Videos and other related information may be found at www.kivasystems.com.

of robust autonomous vehicles, real-time wireless control of hundreds of moving vehicles, the coordination of these vehicles, and the various algorithms that allow the system to adapt and reconfigure itself based on the environment and operating conditions. In the second part of this paper we will outline various technological innovations that would increase the applicability of our approach, either by increasing capabilities or by reducing costs, both of which will make the system more attractive to a wider range of users and applications.

I. I NTRODUCTION

Fig. 1.

Portion of a Kiva warehouse.

Order fulfillment is a multi-billion dollar business. Existing solutions range from the highly automated–whose cost effectiveness is inversely related to their flexibility – to people pushing carts around in warehouses manually filling orders – which is very flexible but not very cost effective. In the first part of this paper we will describe a radical new approach to order fulfillment that is both flexible and cost effective. The key idea is to use hundreds of networked, autonomous vehicles that carry inventory storing pods to human operators. The result is a distribution facility that is completely dynamic, selforganizing, and adaptive. The reader is referred to [1], [2], and [3] for more information. Various challenges had to be overcome in order to make this an economically viable system, ranging from design

Fig. 2. A Kiva inventory pod. Items are stored in configurable shelves, allowing for storage of a wide mix of products.

978-1-4244-2792-5/08/$25.00 ©2008 IEEE

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II. T HE K IVA M OBILE F ULFILLMENT S YSTEM Kiva uses hundreds of mobile robots and powerful control software to provide a complete fulfillment solution: storing, moving and sorting inventory. Instead of being stored in static shelving, flow racks or carousels, products are stored in inventory pods in the center of the warehouse while operators stand at inventory stations around the perimeter. When an order is received, robotic drive units retrieve the appropriate pods and bring them to the worker, who picks out the appropriate item and places it in the carton. Completed orders are stored on separate pods, ready to get up and move to the loading dock when the truck arrives.

ensure that the system is robust to changes in the environment.

Fig. 4. Simulation environment used to design and validate an installation before deployment.

Fig. 5. Mezzanines and elevators can be used to build out a warehouse vertically.

Fig. 3. A Kiva drive unit rotating underneath the lifting device, which is counter-rotating relative to drive unit, and thus not moving relative to the floor.

The Kiva Mobile Fulfillment System (Kiva MFS) has many advantages over existing solutions, which lead to increased productivity, lower cost, and increased flexibility. Some of the key features are outlined below: Fast Picking: The operator is presented with a new pick face location every six seconds, as if they had infinite pick face density with zero walking. Rapid Installation: Starting with blank concrete or mezzanine and a few electrical outlets,...
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