Automated scanning and inspection

Autonomous robots, drones, and real-time locating systems for warehouse and factory automation

One of the major tasks for autonomous robots and drones is automated scanning and inspection – a very important but repetitive task with a predictable routine that requires constant attention and accuracy.

It is what machines can do very well, but humans are prone to tiredness and errors.

Executive Summary:

Study more below.

Robotic solutions for automated scanning and inspection

Autonomous robots come in different forms

Different tasks require different shapes and sizes from the robot. Like mammals can be very different in appearance, for example, mice and elephants, their internal structure is still very similar.

The same is true for robots: they use similar architecture, software, and even electronics but may be very different in size and shape to do their job most efficiently.

Thus, remember that shown examples are simply examples. Robots can be relatively easily tuned for your needs and requirements. Share them via info@marvelmind.com.

Autonomous robot Boxie Scanner

Autonomous robots for scanning

We love drones. Drones are advanced and cool.

However, when we think about something reliable, predictable, and fault-proof that just does the job – automated scanning and inspection –  autonomous robots seem to be a more feasible solution.

Types of scanning and inspecting equipment:

Boxie Scanner - autonomous mobile robot for automated scanning and inspection of warehouses, plants, factories, and greenhouses

Key features

Benefits

Technology

Capabilities

Boxie is a small autonomous mobile robot (AMR) used as a platform, carrier, or tractor for scanning, inspecting, and monitoring equipment – for your payload, whatever form it has. Not only can Boxie carry your payload from point A to point B (C, D, E, etc.) and back, but it can also supply your equipment from the internal batteries and control your equipment by getting commands from your central controllers via our internal wireless network.

Think about our robots – Boxie Scanner and Boxie Scanner Mini – as rockets where you place your satellites (payload), and they deliver your payload to wherever you wish.

Warehouse automation: basics

Factory automation

Warehouse automation, as well as factory automation, is a gradual process coming in steps and multiple forms:

Tasks for automated scanning and inspection solutions

Greenhouse inspection

Not only warehouses or factory floors require automation. Many other industrial areas need predictable and repetitive scanning and inspection, for example, greenhouses.

Greenhouses want to monitor vegetation process and apply sprinkling or initiate cropping just in time.

They also need detailed statistical data to analyze and predict. It requires a lot of data gathering over time that must be trusted and relied upon.

Greenhouse inspection by autonomous robots

Autonomous robots are perfect for automated greenhouse scanning and monitoring.

Autonomous drones can also be used for greenhouse scanning. However, the apparent flexibility and capability of the drones come along with potentially lower reliability and higher risks of failure due to the complexity of the technology.

Automated scanning in retail

Automated scanning in retail

Not only industrial environments or greenhouses require automated scanning and inspection of assets, inventories, or growing vegetable. It is a fundamental task for retail as well.

The requirements in retail are even more demanding because the stocks vary in form, shape, color, and type a lot. Also, it is essential to monitor not only the stock availability and location in general but their appearance, quality of the package, etc.

Marvelmind Robotics currently focuses on industrial applications. Thus, we don’t offer solutions for retail now. However, the same solutions, technologies, and architectures of automated scanning and inspection used for industrial applications can be used in retail with relatively minor modifications. The back-end solutions (image/object recognition, etc.) for retail are more complex than for industrial applications due to the less structured environment and presence of the general public as opposed to instructed workers in warehouses or plants.

Classical solutions for warehouse automation

Classical solutions for warehouse automation still heavily rely on humans. Yes, readers, scanners, and trackers are available and enabling accountability and traceability of assets and what has been done or not done. Yes, WMS and ERP provide the databases and records. But many tasks – real physical scanning and real physical movements – are still done by humans with all their pros and cons. The task remains labor-intensive.

Before diving into advanced warehouse automation solutions, let’s briefly touch on what warehouses are using today.

Barcode readers and QR code scanners

Using barcode readers is probably the first real stage of practical automation that allows the handling of a large amount of inventory quickly and reliably.

Barcode readers or QR code scanners are handy devices, but their true potential only exhibits when they are wirelessly connected to WMS or ERP systems.

Humans still have to bring the scanners to assets and inventory to read the data. Sometimes, assets are moved to humans by a conveyor or AGVs.

Man is using a bar code reader in a warehouse
RFID reader

Active RFID offers a rudimentary gate-level real-time locating system. You don’t know the exact location of an asset at any given time unless you read it right now and you know the location of your RFID scanner, but you can well localize your assets to some level based on the path of the asset through the gates with RFID readers.

RFID readers and RFID scanners

The RFID solutions are divided in passive and active RFID:

The RFID solutions are very similar to barcoding in usage. Still, the technology behind it is entirely different. RFID is more flexible and more advanced than barcodes or QR codes. More data can be stored inside an RFID tag, and the data can be changed electronically – no need to print or stick.

However, even passive RFID tags are typically more expensive than basic bar code or QR code labels. Active RFID tags are significantly more expensive and require either a battery inside that must be charged or changed periodically or a fixed external power supply to power the active electronics inside the tag. In short, active RFID tags are orders of magnitude more complex than basic bar/QR code labels.

At the same time, the labels and readers are only a small part of the whole warehouse automation system. Thus, if the total cost of the system (WMS/ERP, labels and labeling, scanners, people, ease of use, flexibility, availability of data, etc.) is taken into account, even active RFID tags or RTLS become a viable solution.

Active RFID solutions allow the distance to read your assets’ data to be larger – tens and hundreds of meters from a reader. You don’t yet know the location of your assets because RFID is not a true real-time locating system (RTLS), but you can retrieve a lot of data from multiple RFID tags without needing physical movements toward the assets.

With proper arrangements, RFID, and particularly active RFID, is an effective solution for multiple applications because it offers reasonable accountability and traceability of inventory and assets in general.

Key elements of automated scanning solutions

Before we dive deeper into discussion of how to implement automated scanning and inspection solutions, let’s highlight what the key elements of automated scanning solutions are.

Advanced solutions for warehouse automation

The key task of automation is to eliminate manual labor and substitute it with other solutions wherever possible. In its turn, it will lead to reduced human error, reduced labor and operational cost, improved customer service, and even improved employee satisfaction.

Automated scanning and inspection is a relatively simple task for modern autonomous technologies, and it shall free people to do other – less monotonous and repetitive – work.

Advice: succeed with scanning robots first and then advance to drones

Drones for inspection

We at Marvelmind Robotics are approached with requests for autonomous drones or indoor positioning systems for autonomous indoor drones for warehouse inspection, automated barcode scanning, or RFID reading, at least, on a weekly basis.

There is certainly a solid need for the task and a strong interest in fulfilling the need based on drones.

Autonomous drones for warehouse inspection is probably the most complex solution to implement in practice among typical automation technologies. Let us start with it and then consider alternatives to drones.

What is challenging with drones in general?

Manually controlled drones

The first and rather primitive way to scan assets using drones is to fly them manually. It is a straightforward solution that obviously works if the drone pilot is skillful. The system can be deployed quickly if there are already back-end systems in place: WMS, ERP, image or video recognition, AI, etc., that are required for all kinds of warehouse and factory automation systems – autonomous or manual drones – anyway.

Scanning drone inside warehouse
Autonomous drone in a warehouse

When we talk about automation, we dream about something that works with little or no human interventions. We also expect that the system works at least as reliably and predictably as with humans in the loop. And, of course, it must be more efficient. Otherwise, what is the point of automation at all.

Autonomous drones require a real-time locating system (RTLS) to fly autonomously. It could be an inside-out system that uses simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM). 

However, SLAM is a fancy technology for research but not necessarily the best one when something practical – like scheduled inventory counting – shall be performed. SLAM is perfect for discovering the environment, building a map of it, and using it for an autonomous flight. But what is the value in re-discovering, again and again, the same warehouse for the expense of complexity and lower reliability than other methods of localization.

Thus, a real-time positioning system that relies on infrastructure or external markers assisting the drone in autonomous flight is the most cost-efficient and reliable solution for real practical implementation. Which indoor positioning system is the most suitable for a particular case depends on the case.

How to build autonomous indoor drone

Marvelmind and PX4 integration
Marvelmind integration with ArduPilot
Marvelmind integrations with PixHawk
Marvelmind integration with external systems

We discuss in depth how to build autonomous indoor drones on our Drones page.

Below are essential hints relevant to automated scanning using autonomous drones:

Indoor positioning systems for autonomous drones

Pros:

  • – Highest accuracy among indoor RTLS
  • – Reliable RTLS solution
  • – Incremental cost per drone is low
  • – Infrastructure can be used for other tasks
  • – Relatively simple drones
  • – Accuracy doesn’t depend on the distance

Cons:

  • – Requires complex infrastructure
  • – May have problems with ultrasound noise
  •  

UWB

Pros:

  • – Reliable RTLS solution
  • – Incremental cost per drone is low
  • – Infrastructure can be used for other tasks
  • – Relatively simple drones
  • – Accuracy doesn’t depend on the distance

Cons:

Assisted optical (QR codes)

Pros:

  • – Rather simple to implement
  • – Ready-to-use SW libraries available
  • – Basic hardware requirements

Cons:

  • – Require QR code labels everywhere
  • – QR codes on the floor are easily blocked
  • – QR codes on the floor are easily damaged
  • – QR codes on the ceiling are impractical
  • – Heavily depended on lighting
  • – Accuracy drops with distance

SLAM optical

Pros:

  • – Can work in an unprepared environment
  • – Combine positioning and obstacle detection

Cons:

  • – Less reliable than some other methods
  • – More complex than some other methods
  • – Requires advanced/expensive camera(s)
  • – Requires advanced processing/connectivity
  • – May accumulate positioning error
  • – May be heavy

SLAM LIDARs

Pros:

  • – Can work in an unprepared environment
  • – Combine positioning and obstacle detection

Cons:

  • – Simple LIDARs are not very capable
  • – Complex LIDARs are heavy and expensive
  • – May depend on lighting
  • – May be less reliable in complex environment

Implementation of an indoor positioning system for autonomous drones in warehouses with narrow aisles

Marvelmind Robotics is, first of all, a precise indoor positioning system provider for autonomous robots and drones. Thus, we can guide you in depth about implementation of your autonomous indoor drone project whether you build it on Marvelmind indoor positioning solutions or other solutions. Many recommendations and requirements are very similar.

In the video above, we talk about NIA. If you need to fly multiple drones simultaneously, use MF NIA as your indoor drone positioning system. With up to 8 drones simultaneously, MF NIA provides the same location update rate per drone as for one drone. With even more simultaneously flying drones, even more advanced methods on top of MF NIA may be offered. Let us know via email: info@marvelmind.com

– Defines the requirements

– Сhooses integrator and vendors

– It can be an integrator as well

– Ultimately responsible for the project

– Integrates products and solutions from different vendors, for example, Marvelmind Robotics

– Supplier of accurate indoor positioning systems (IPS) and RTLS for autonomous robots and drones

– Supplier of autonomous robots for automated inspection and scanning
– Closely cooperating with the end-user, integrators, and other providers, for example, drone and AI providers

– Closely cooperating with suppliers of barcode and QR scanners, RFID readers, and similar equipment

– Selected by the end-user or the integrator. Can be referred by Marvelmind Robotics based on previous integrations

– End-user and integrator can be drone providers as well

– In many cases drones are assembled from the off-the-shelf basic components: frame, motors, autopilot HW/SW

– Responsible for QR, barcode, image, object recognition, machine learning, and RFID data interpretation

– Responsible for integration with WMS/ERP

Contact us via info@marvelmind.com with any questions