Using ant-based swarm intelligence for materials handling

March 26, 2012
Swarming and transporting

Autonomous transport shuttles work in a swarm (credit: Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML)

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML in Dortmund, Germany plan to use “swarm intelligence” for materials handling. Their Multishuttle Moves — swarms of autonomous transport shuttles — could provide an alternative to traditional systems.

The scientists have assembled a testing facility with a swarm of 50 autonomous devices. “In the future, transport systems should be able to perform all of these tasks autonomously, from removal from the shelf to delivery to a picking station. This will provide an alternative to conventional materials-handling solutions,“ explains Prof. Dr. Michael ten Hompel, executive director at IML.

“The “intelligence” is in the transporters themselves,“ Dr. Thomas Albrecht, head of the Autonomous Transport Systems department explains. “We rely on agent-based software and use ant-like algorithms based on the work of Marco Dorigo. These are methods of combinational optimization based on the behavior of real ants in their search for food.“

When an order is received, the shuttles are informed of this by a software agent. Then they coordinate with each other via wireless to determine which shuttle can take over the load. The job goes to the closest free shuttle.

The shuttles navigate freely through the space with integrated localization and navigation technology. The vehicles have a new hybrid sensor concept — with a localization system, distance and acceleration sensors, and laser scanners — to compute the shortest route to any destination and prevent collisions. In conventional storage facilities, materials-handling equipment obstructs the area between high-rack storage and picking stations, and packages must travel two to three times more than via a direct route.