Ti Blog: The Rise of the Robots Continues

Last Friday, a major funding announcement marked another step forward in the development of autonomous vehicles.

Which company did this announcement relate to? Uber? Tesla? Apple?

In this case, no.

The company benefitting from an injection of capital was Seegrid, a producer of three-dimensional vision navigation systems. Not only have you probably not heard of this company, its activities are primarily directed towards autonomous vehicles you may be unlikely to see; automated guided vehicles (AGVs) deployed in warehousing operations. This principally includes pallet trucks and forklifts, though the company is expanding its range of machines.

Seegrid was formed in 2003 by Hans Moravec, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, and since then has weathered infighting and bankruptcy, restructured, and posted rapid revenue growth.

Former CEO Anthony Horbal maintains a significant position in the company, but Seegrid has been primarily backed by US supermarket Giant Eagle, the same company that provided approximately US$12m of equity capital to the firm five days ago.

Giant Eagle is itself a significant customer of Seegrid, and it is in good company; according to its website, Seegrid supplies its AGVs to a significant number of blue chip customers, including Jaguar Land Rover, Walgreens, Whirlpool, Honeywell and Del Monte.

AGVs have proliferated in recent years, with high profile cases such as Amazon dominating the headlines. Most of these vehicles differ significantly from those produced by Seegrid, however, as they are designed for supporting labour-intensive e-fulfilment operations. At Ti, we can attest to the rapidity with which this segment of the logistics industry is growing, however, it is important to remember that it still only represents a fraction of retail logistics, let alone the wider contract logistics market.

Seegrid vehicles are designed to be of service for a much wider variety of vertical sectors, as denoted by the companies mentioned above. There are manufacturers producing AGVs to serve these areas, such as Amerden, but importantly, Seegrid’s machines differ from those produced by the competition at the technical level.

Whilst many autonomous systems function by utilising a combination of floor markings and laser systems, Seegrid’s AGVs each deploy a number of low-end cameras to maintain a 360° view of the machine’s surroundings. By analysing the data from these sensory inputs, the company’s proprietary software plots data on a three-dimensional grid, and navigates in a manner designed to mimic the way in which humans see and interpret the world.

The advantages of this technology are that it allows the vehicles to deal with uncertainty, weighing up probabilities in order to come to a decision; a laser-based method would be unable to do so, as such systems are binary in nature. Moreover, these systems require expensive hardware, as well as time-consuming training and software updates. Seegrid’s technology is far cheaper, and more rapid to deploy.

At present, each Seegrid AGV is capable of learning specific routes throughout a warehouse by being manually guided through said paths; following this stage, the robot is able to navigate each route on its own. Nonetheless, this means of interpreting a surrounding environment also opens up significant possibilities for the company’s vehicles to improve their ‘decision-making’ as a result of machine learning, an additional advantage.

The rise of Seegrid is an important development in the logistics industry. A lot of funding and experimentation is currently directed towards AGVs and other materials handling systems, and in a not entirely unrelated development, the industry is also bearing witness to consolidation through M&A. It may well prove that the future has an acquisition in store for Seegrid, but at the right price, this should be considered a success.

Until such a hypothetical scenario breaks into reality, the company appears to have significant ambitions, which could be said to be justified given Seegrid is “poised to repeat its 100-percent revenue growth from last year”.

Whether or not Seegrid has truly embarked on a period of sustainable growth remains to be seen, but the signs are certainly positive. The recent successes of other companies, such as Flexport and Logfire, shows that things are, gradually, changing, and the warehouse is one of the most critical areas in which this is the case.

For more information on new technologies transforming the warehouse, take a look at Ti’s latest report, Global Warehousing & Logistics Networks 2016.

Source: Transport Intelligence, September 28, 2016

Author: Alexander Le Roy