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Advanced Optics for Automated Guided Vehicles

Michael Marafino, Software Engineer at America in Motion, has been with the company for almost 2 years working hands-on with the software side of our automated guided vehicles (AGVs). His goal, along with CEO Tommy Hessler, is to continuously explore new boundaries with the capabilities of our vehicles. We are constantly researching and implementing new technologies to better serve our customers.


With a few new advances in the field of optics being added to our vehicles, we sat down with Marafino to learn more. 


Gregory: Before we get to it, tell me more about what you do on a daily basis at AIM.


Marafino: Day to day I am working on creating the software that is running on the various PLCs we have on the vehicles but also working with the systems that help control the AGVs. There are also systems that we use on some projects with Kollmorgen that control how the vehicles actually communicate with one another, so I help write the code for that as well. 


I also write code that connects various systems. For example, connecting our system manager to our customers so their specific data is synced to the system. Any custom behavior our customers want their AGVs to do is something I handle as well since we are a custom shop. Anything the customer wants we can do given enough time and resources. 


Gregory: Are most AGV companies pretty standard when it comes to software?


Marafino: Most AGV companies, for example, the bigger ones who aren’t doing custom jobs all the time, generally keep their software consistent. Their software has been used for years and for the most part hasn’t changed. There may be some adaptations they make but generally, they aren’t making changes for each vehicle they have. For us, we do a lot of fully custom jobs. We start out with a template because there are some basics that are the same then go from there. Really the sky's the limit as far as what we can do. 


For example, recently I was talking to a coworker who has been with the company for a while. He was talking about an AGV project we did that involved an AGV going up the side of a mountain carrying explosive material. This is a good example showing how unique our customer base is. Sometimes customers come to us with very specific needs and we are able to work to find them custom solutions.


Gregory: How is AIM using cameras to improve AGV vision?


Marafino: We’ve been working with a partner of ours, Agmanic Vision, to add 3D cameras into some of our vehicles. There’s a program that we run on the AGV itself. Basically, our PLC is running a program to work with the FRAMOS camera to do image processing in real time. So as we are running the vehicle, we can choose on the AGV when we want a photo taken and it takes however many milliseconds to take the photo. For instance, we can tell the AGV to take a photo at a drop point or when we are doing some sort of specified activity. We can choose when we want to use the camera and it can provide us with information. It really just depends on what a customer wants and then a code can be written to accommodate. These advanced cameras provide a 3D field of the surrounding area allowing the vehicles to better see their surroundings and then adapt given the code we program in.  

3D Point Cloud Images AGVS

Traditionally, a laser sensor (2D LiDAR sensor) that sees in one direction would be used so if something is right in front of the vehicle then it is programmed to stop, capture a photo, etc. Since the laser can only see in one direction though, vision is a lot more limited than a 3D camera. The 3D camera can better see obstructions and then react accordingly. One customer we’ve added 3D cameras to their AGVs has an operation that really benefits from having this more advanced vision system for collision avoidance given the delicacy of their product and to ensure the safety of all the workers involved.

3D camera on AGV

Gregory: What types of applications are best for 3D cameras?


Marafino: If someone is looking to add cameras to their AGVs, I don’t know why they wouldn't go ahead and go for the 3D rather than the traditional 2D laser sensor. It can be just as fast and provides a lot more detail. You are able to visually assess a space in 3D which creates a much more efficient system. There are a lot of applications that would benefit from 3D vision. 


Gregory: What are some additional benefits of using 3D Vision?


Marafino: 3D vision enhances guidance, safety, efficiency, and overall optimization of operations.  It’s such an upgrade to be able to see in 3D as far as collision avoidance or just for putting things away, stacking products, finding empty space where products can be stored, stuff like that. The thing you want is to limit human interventions because the more humans are involved the more errors that could be introduced. If we can have more things that are fail-safe, then it’s a win-win for everyone. 


Gregory: What does the future of vision for AGVs look like at AIM?


Marafino: The possibilities are endless. I know Tommy, our CEO, is very excited to push the envelope as far as what we can do for our customers with these advanced camera options. There are different sensors on AGVs. You’ll have some that are safety-rated so they have a certain response time. Coming out now there are some safety-rated 3D sensors so I think in the future we will be putting those on our vehicle as well. That’s something to look forward to that not a lot of companies are currently doing.

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