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Microlocation: The Answer to Keeping Humans and Robots Safe in the Warehouse

One company is determined to make the warehouse safe for workers of all kinds, as in the future, employees may have more robotic colleagues than human ones.

Automation through robotics is growing rapidly as businesses recognize the benefits they afford. So far, there’s been no stopping robots’ infiltration of many verticals, with their popularity running high in areas like warehousing and distribution, which see wild swings in seasonal demand. That’s because robots can operate safely performing tasks that often pose hazards to human life, while also offering levels of productivity that far surpasses what mere mortals can achieve. A robot might be able to survive a pallet rack crashing on it, though a human likely wouldn’t fare as well.

Despite the advantages of automation, some companies are taking a wait-and-see approach to the question of robots, which typically come with a considerable price tag, plus the risk of obsolescence as the technology rapidly evolves. Why invest when something better is just around the corner?

One thing that’s not waiting: e-commerce, which has seen growth is outpacing that of the total retail market and warehouses that are pressed to pick, pack and ship mounting volumes of products and packages destined for customer doorsteps.

It’s a perfect storm to support the case for automation, though for many, the concept of putting robots in the workplace prompts just as many questions as the problems it purports to solve.

For one, there’s the idea that while robots may help humans avoid dangerous tasks, they might also present hazards of their own. Inserting additional moving objects into an already hectic warehouse environment could be a recipe for chaos.

Microlocation company Humatics is trying to solve the potential problem of humans and bots toiling away in shared space with radio frequency sensors that can detect an object’s position down to the millimeter from up to 30 meters away. After acquiring 5D Robotics and Time Domain, both of which were announced last week, Humatics and its Spatial Intelligence Platform now possess the technology to calculate in 3-D the precise positions of even more objects in more environments and from longer distances—up to 500 meters away. Though GPS is sufficient for a number of positioning tasks, it’s not suitable for use indoors; lasers and cameras, while useful, are easily overcome by certain weather conditions, from rain to fog to snow, not to mention their over-reliance on data-intensive maps.

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Humatics raised $18 million in 2017 funding to continue finetuning its microlocation technology, which could play a greater role in warehouse operations in the months and years ahead. The company sees numerous applications for microlocation technology, which could help augmented reality systems render images with millimeter precision, and assist drones in hovering exactly where needed when mapping topographies.

“As former head of the D.C. and Chicago Departments of Transportation, I’m acutely attuned to the challenges of keeping people safe as we create the cities of the future,” said Gabe Klein, co-founder of smart cities advisory services firm CityFi and a special venture partner at Fontinalis, a venture capital firm focused on next-generation mobility technologies. “The newly expanded Humatics team has foundational technology that’s poised to augment or replace GPS and better manage interactions between people and moving objects like cars and drones.”