How Humans and Autonomous Mobile Robots Interact
One of the defining features of robots of all kinds is an element of autonomy: they’re designed to do what you want them to do more or less by themselves, or at the very least without requiring constant supervision. What makes Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) so versatile and easy to integrate is their ability to work safely around (and with) human workers while maintaining impressive levels of autonomy. In day to day operations, both warehouse managers and associates may spend time around AMRs, and understanding how humans and robots interact will help you be more comfortable and confident with introducing AMRs into your workflow.
In warehouse environments, most AMRs are used to autonomously transport materials from one place to another. These materials may consist of items that are all loaded at one specific location and unloaded in another, or items that are loaded sequentially across many different locations around the warehouse. This leads to two common situations in which associates and AMRs interact. The first is when loading or unloading the AMR, and the second is when associates and AMRs are moving around your warehouse on separate tasks.
When AMRs are being used alongside people, such as in a virtual conveyor application, warehouse associates will need to interact with them very frequently. Doing so should be simple, seamless, and intuitive. Questions like “what does this robot want me to do,” or “what is this robot doing now” should be rare, since the AMR should make it obvious what its tasks and intentions are, ideally with a clear and comfortable user interface. User comfort is key in applications like these— if the frequency with which the user interacts with the robot is high, any amount of extra effort required (resulting from things like inconveniently placed screens, buttons, or shelves) will, over time, make interacting with the robot a much less positive experience.
When AMRs are moving around your warehouse independently, they’ll need to be able to avoid obstacles. This is more complicated than just not running into objects or people. For example, if you’re walking down a narrow aisle in your warehouse and an AMR is approaching from the other direction, how will you know that the AMR has seen you, and what will it do to let you pass safely? More generally, how quickly should an AMR move when around humans, and how much does it slow down when approaching a human? How closely will it follow someone, and how much space does it leave when navigating near people who are are standing or walking? Careful programming, and a substantial amount of experience with robotics, is necessary to develop an AMR with the right mix of efficiency, comfort, and safety.
Safety is, of course, one of the primary concerns with any AMR deployment. It’s not enough for an AMR to be safe from a technical perspective: it also has to feel safe from the perspective of the people who are working directly with it. This is an often overlooked aspect of AMR design, because it’s so hard to quantify. When choosing your AMR system, getting some hands-on experience with the robots in an operational environment is a must, to make sure that you (and your colleagues and employees) will be completely comfortable with your new fleet of autonomous robots.
Inevitably, there will be some concern from warehouse associates that AMRs are intended to take over their jobs in some way. Successful interactions between people and robots depend on an accurate understanding of what robots are intended to do, and educating workers on how AMRs fit into their job experience will make them feel more comfortable about adopting this new technology.
For the vast majority of people, there’s no need to be scared of an AMR taking your job— these robots are designed to make you more efficient at what you do, while also making your work safer and more pleasant. Think of them as tools: without a human working with them, they’re not very useful. It’s also important to remember that AMRs are intended to take over the most difficult, tedious, and boring tasks in a warehouse. They move stuff from one place to another so that you don’t have to waste time and energy on basic manual tasks.