General George S. Patton discovered in World War II that it can be problematic to move too far ahead of your supply vehicles. On the flip side though, as non-combatants are discovering today in Iraq, it can be equally problematic to come under fire while unloading supply vehicles.
To combat the problem (pardon the expression), researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a remote-controlled robotic forklift. A human supervisor could stay protected in a bunker and still unload pallets into a warehouse. Its combination of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, motion control, and computer commands make it a mechatronic marvel. (See video of the forklift here and a video discussion of its design philosophy here.)
“We started with a 3-ton Toyota forklift with a 3000-pound load capability,” says Seth Teller, MIT professor of computer science and engineering and project lead. “We turned it into a drive-by-wire forklift with a combination of electrical, hydraulic, and mechanical components so that it’s under computer control. We installed electric motors to take the place of the human operator's hands and feet. They can turn the wheel or depress the brake pedal.” The software issues voltage commands to the motors to make it go forward and backward and turn the steering wheel.
To understand its surroundings, the forklift is equipped with multiple LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors for measuring distance and bearings in relation to obstacles. It uses the sensors to understand its terrain, and the location of pallets or people nearby.
In addition, the supervisor commands the forklift remotely using a handheld PDA equipped with wireless Ethernet and voice controls. “The supervisor uses a handheld computer that accepts both speech input and gesture input with the stylus,” Teller says. A camera mounted on the front of the forklift transmits a view to the supervisor. The commands are not complex; the supervisor can circle a pallet and say, ‘move this’ to a previously identified location.
Some parts of the vision for the robotic forklift are not completely finished. To introduce the robotic forklift to its surroundings, Teller says, the supervisor should be able to give a “narrated, guided tour” of the surrounding area. “We imagine it’s a rookie operator with no knowledge of the local site. We indicate where the trucks come in, where the pallets are, the designations for the pallet bays.”
Teller plans to have a prototype ready this spring, but believes the project could continue for several years. He’d like to be able to manipulate items smaller than a pallet, such as the cartons that might be on the pallet.
Teller and his team are most excited by the military application; that is, the ability to make noncombatants safer in a military zone. But he also believes that the robotic forklift has commercial and civilian applications, suggesting that big-box retail stores could use them to offload trucks in inclement weather. “One person could supervise five to ten forklifts at a time,” Teller estimates, which would save on personnel costs.