New Kion project to develop AI-powered “swarm robotics”

by Inside Logistics Online Staff

Kion Group AG and the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) are joining forces to develop LoadRunner, a distributed-AI-assisted autonomous vehicle.

The two organizations are establishing a joint Enterprise Lab to develop the vehicle. Kion will also license the LoadRunner technology from Fraunhofer IML for use in its international group of companies.

The LoadRunner AGV was designed by Fraunhofer IML uses distributed, intelligent vehicle coordination to create “swarm robotics”. The common goal of the Kion Group and Fraunhofer IML is to optimize the AI-assisted swarm technology, from basic sensor to overarching platform, and launch it on the market.

Fast-moving AGVs

Currently, a LoadRunner can navigate in a swarm at up to 10 metres per second. If required, several vehicles and up to four passive trailers can link together magnetically to transport large and bulky items.

Thanks to its maneuverability and omnidirectional running gear, the LoadRunner is  suited to sorting and distribution processes. Loads are transferred without additional actuators solely by means of inertia when the vehicle brakes. Each LoadRunner can transport and sort a load of around 30 kg, so it can be used to transport and sort luggage at airports, for example.

A team of eight employees from both partners will work together in the Enterprise Lab at Fraunhofer IML in Dortmund to further develop the LoadRunner technology. The lab is scheduled to begin its work this September and will operate for a minimum of three years.

“The AI-assisted LoadRunner is the blueprint for the intralogistics sector’s path toward a digital platform economy that is networked in real time,” said Professor Michael ten Hompel, managing director of Fraunhofer IML.

“The vehicle swarms combine the capabilities of powerful sorting and material handling technology with the potential of autonomous AI-based systems. The launch of the joint Enterprise Lab with the Kion Group is an important reminder of the technology’s disruptive potential. Our partnership with innovative intralogistics expert Kion will open up global markets for the LoadRunner.”

10,000 units per hour

The LoadRunner was unveiled at the 2019 Digital Summit as part of a project funded by the German Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI).

In September 2020, a trial using the LoadRunner for parcel sorting delivered the first promising results: with just 60 vehicles, it is theoretically possible to sort well over 10,000 items per hour. This means that 60 LoadRunners can already match the performance of a conventional sorting system. Unlike these, however, the LoadRunner requires far less fixed infrastructure and offers significantly faster start-up, flexible performance adjustment, and better scalability.

“In the ‘Silicon Economy’, the digital platform economy of the future, vehicle swarms will organize themselves and communicate with humans, platforms, and other swarms to complete their mission,” said ten Hompel.

“Thanks to artificial intelligence, the LoadRunner is capable of independently negotiating and accepting orders – a revolution in logistics,” he adds.

The Kion Group produces industrial trucks, such as forklift trucks and warehouse trucks, as well as integrated automation technology and software solutions for the optimization of supply chains, including all related services. At the end of 2020, more than 1.6 million of the Group’s industrial trucks and over 6,000 of its installed systems were in use by customers of various sizes and in numerous industries on six continents. The Group currently has in excess of 36,000 employees and generated revenue of €8.3 billion in 2020.