Making light work of logistics
While its applications in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are already recognised, the full potential of 3D laser mapping applications in logistics is only just coming to light. Enzo Signore, chief marketing officer (CMO) at lidar technology provider Quanergy Systems, talks to Marcus Williams about applications in ports, warehouses and yard management
Light detection and ranging (lidar) technology works by aiming a laser that is not visible to the naked eye at a target. The time taken for the beam to return and the difference in wavelength can then be used to build a complex digital 3D representation of the object targeted. The technology is already in widespread use to make high resolution maps for a range of applications, including surveying and geology.
What is becoming clear now is that the technology has a lot of potential in everything from port and warehouse automation to truck platooning, autonomous vehicle navigation and finished vehicle yard management.
According to Enzo Signore there is now a lot of interest from the industrial automation market in lidar technology.
“The fourth wave of the industrial revolution is all built on 3D internet of things technology,” he says. “We see a lot of opportunity right now [in industrial applications], a lot of applications around the world, including warehouse automation, flexible manufacturing, port automation, unmanned vehicles and eventually a lot of automated mobile robots [AMRs].”
What is lidar?
“The fundamentals of lidar technology are fairly straightforward,” explains Signore. “It is signalling caught by a reader but instead of radio signals it uses light.”
There are different types of sensors
depending on the type of object that is being targeted and on how broad a field of view
it is necessary to cover (a container vessel as opposed to a crate for instance), but
generally the sensor generates light pulses
at very high frequency. When the light pulse
hits an object it will then reflect back to the sensor.
Since light travels at a constant speed the technology can calculate the time taken the light pulse to come back and fix the distance that it travelled, what is called time of flight (ToF) technology.
“The sensor does this many times and in our case we can collect up to 1.3m pulses per second,” says Signore.
The high-precision picture resulting from the data means AGVs/AMRs can determine the shape of an object and its distance from the vehicle or robot, and from any humans sharing the environment.
Earlier this year Quanergy introduced its M1 2D Lidar sensor specifically for mid- to long-range industrial applications, including automation in warehouse logistics, factories, and other industrial facilities, including those at container handling ports.
In fact, the applications for container port automation are particularly exciting at a time when the global distribution of products is expanding but workforces are reduced because of the Covid pandemic.
“Some of the major ports around the world are seeing increased volumes but with fewer people to handle them,” said Signore. “So they are automating the processes that go from ship to shore, and from shore to the back of a truck.”
Lidar sensors are now being fitted to the container gantry cranes used to load and unload vessels, in order to accurately locate specific containers at distances of 70 metres. The sensors beam light pulses down from the top of the crane onto the ship and locate the container, which the automated crane will then pick up. As opposed to camera or radar, lidar technology provides an accurate 3D picture of the container. That enables full automation, meaning the crane will also be able to safely stack the containers on shore.
Once there, lidar is also being used to locate the trucks used to take the containers inland and provide an accurate picture of the positioning of the container on the truck bed.
Automating with accuracy
The level of accuracy achieved with 3D mapping also supports in maximising the load factor of trucks moving goods inbound to the factory, providing a real-time picture of the inside of the truck and the dimensions of the material being loaded.
There are a number of other applications in the warehouse and factory, too. Lidar is bringing greater precision to automated processes in those environments and helping to make automated mobile robots (AMRs) more sophisticated.
“You can use cameras [to locate crates or pallets] but lidar gives you 3D imaging,” explains SIgnore. “That is the fundamental difference between lidar and other technologies. The world we live in is a 3D world and we are being hamstrung by technologies like radar and cameras that are either one- or two-dimensional.”
The real-time information gathered by the AMR gives a clear picture of height, width and depth of the object, enabling the unit to gauge overall dimensions for movement and stacking.
Lidar also allows helps to control gates and doors in the warehouse by processing whether the object being moved through them requires a larger access point or not, helping to conserve the required temperature of the warehouse and save energy.
Quanergy was set up in 2012 with the objective of developing a solid-state product – that is a product using semiconductor devices to replace rotating mechanical parts – and was one of the first companies to apply 3D lidar technology in the form of a solid-state sensor for commercial use.
The sensor is immune to vibration and enables navigation and collision avoidance for automated guided vehicles (AGV), unmanned ground vehicles (UGV), mobile robots and forklifts, and protects individuals within industrial areas. The sensors are used jointly with Quanergy’s Qortex perception software.
According to Signore, the company began by targeting a number of applications specific to transport because that sector requires the highest level of reliability, combined with low cost and long-term performance. Given the immunity to vibration, the solid-state sensor is an ideal application.
Quanergy made its first product commercially available in December 2019. The Flow Management Platform is used for real-time analysis for people counting and was in fact applied to help with social distancing when the coronavirus took hold earlier this year.
Now the company is looking at applications in industry.
“What we realised about a year ago was that in addition to automotive there were many other sectors that were ready to absorb lidar technology,” says Signore.
The release in July of the company’s M1 2D Lidar sensor, specifically for mid- to long-range industrial applications, including automation in warehouse logistics, is the first of a series of products, according to Signore:
“You are going to see more products coming out in short order focused on the industrial market because there is a large appetite for the 3D lidar application.”
Lidar also promotes safety in the workplace through collision avoidance applications on the AMRs. Quanergy’s lidar technology can determine the speed of an object moving and the direction in which it is moving, for instance, a forklift truck moving through a warehouse.
“When you are in a mixed environment with humans interacting with robots, safety is paramount,” says Signore. “You want to determine in real-time the recommended distance between people and machines to avoid accidents at any cost, so you need a 3D system to be able to determine that.”
However, lidar could also help to drive developments in so-called dark warehouses, which operate without human labour and where the bulk of the work is carried out by robots and automated control systems.
More literally, lidar enables AMRs to operate in inventory control or material handling, even in complete darkness, because it works according to its own laser sensors.
“Cameras need the right amount of light to function properly,” explains Signore. “If there is too much or not enough light, they are not going to be effective. Lidar is using its own light source, its lasers, so doesn’t require any external light sources.”
Lidar on the road
Lidar is also used in advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicle technology. Autonomous truck navigation on the roads is still some years off because of the variables in a highway environment. Level 4/5 self-driving technology is going to take another five years or more until it is mature, according to Signore, and it will need to be less expensive to produce.
Lidar also has potential applications in truck platooning, where two or more trucks are joined in a convoy using connectivity technology and automated driving support systems. Lidar can help with sensing the distance between the trucks that must be maintained (up to 150 metres or more) and the aforementioned fact that lidar technology can work in any lighting conditions is a major asset in ensuring the reliability of such systems. Though again, Signore sees this as at least five years away before the technology is mature.
However, in controlled environments such as a vehicle storage yard or terminal there is more immediate potential. Signore says that lidar has applications for locating vacant parking spaces and enabling the vehicle to self-park in them.
Signore acknowledges that risk in damaging vehicles when positioning them in a yard, a quality concern for outbound logistics providers. “What you can do is use lidar to create a very precise view of the available spots in the parking lot and then guide that car autonomously to the spot. And you can move the cars in and out of the spot. It is extremely precise and that is another application that can increase the flow.”
Some of the major ports around the world are seeing increased volumes but with fewer people to handle them. So they are automating the processes that go from ship to shore
Enzo Signore, Quanergy Systems
When you are in a mixed environment with humans interacting with robots, safety is paramount. You want to determine in real-time the recommended distance between people and machines to avoid accidents at any cost, so you need a 3D system to be able to determine that
Enzo Signore, Quanergy Systems
You are going to see more products coming out in short order focused on the industrial market because there is a large appetite for the 3D lidar application
Enzo Signore, Quanergy Systems