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Freedom Fleet Control: A Single View for a Complex Challenge

Nick Cortes
Nick Cortes | 6 min read
Jul 13, 2022 |

Industrial Robotics

At Freedom Robotics, we have built a reliable set of telemetry and monitoring tools to capture valuable robotics data and put it into the hands of our users. To do this we needed to build a stable and extensible data pipeline for a variety of robotic devices. Once we had all your devices speaking the same language on the same platform, it was time to take the next step in delivering value to our customers. As we’ve grown, we’ve seen the main value for businesses adopting autonomous technology is to drive continuous improvements in operational efficiency while enabling interoperability across fleets. 

Legacy systems were rigid and slow to change. There were strong dependencies on system integrators and custom-built OEM solutions. Everything was siloed and brand-specific. “Separate islands of automation” is how we heard some industry experts describe it. For the people with boots on the ground of the factory floor, they realized what needed to be done, but couldn’t easily change it. 

This was the impetus for the development of our Freedom Fleet Control. We looked at the concept of flexible manufacturing, exploring how we could leverage our tech to make it easier for a factory to adjust to changes. Rather than investing millions of dollars and having a system integrator spend months or even years on the floor, how could we make manufacturing solutions more nimble and ready to adjust to new needs and solve problems without excessive downtime?

Expertise Not Required

Most of the users that are using robotics in their business are not robot experts; they are manufacturing or logistics experts who use robots as a tool. Many of them have been investing in or deploying robotics, but not seeing it yield the desired results. So we stepped in to help users realize the ROI of robotic automation faster, with the goal of moving the industry at large to a higher pace of robotic adoption. 

Industrial manufacturing environments are the primary place you see large deployments of heterogeneous robot fleets. Operators, systems engineers, and process engineers understand manufacturing and industrial concepts inside and out, but they lack the depth of knowledge around robotics and software, which becomes increasingly complex as you add more device types to your fleet. That’s where Fleet Control comes in.  

We’ve created a way to abstract out the complexity of having multiple different devices and—most importantly—completely different OEM brands in your fleet. Each brand of robot has its own way of defining how to report things like battery data and odometry. Previously, this necessitated every person working with a robot to develop expertise on each individual unit being used in order to enable (limited) interoperability. Clearly, that’s not scalable for companies with large and diverse fleets spread across dozens of factories, warehouses, and operations around the world. 

When you’re using Freedom, you don’t have to worry about the brand of robot you’re interacting with. Rather, you just need to understand its function (ex: manipulator vs. mobile robot) and the jobs you need it to do. Your factory can have as many different brands of robots as you’d like, and you can easily use our platform to manage them all. Once we have all your devices connected to a single platform, we allow you to create simple automations between different devices, allowing fleets of robots from different brands to work together to serve your goals versus working in isolation in a very rigid structure to make sure they don’t get in each other's way. .  

The interface you use for this was purposefully created to be user-friendly and not heavily technical. You can drag and drop items, building logic with basic building blocks. You don’t need to become an expert on each device in your fleet or even know how to code, and you don’t need to pay to outsource that expertise either. We want to not only unlock the potential of your devices, but of your people who know what needs to be done, but are hamstrung by the tools at their disposal.

The overhead cost of robotics has gone through the roof due to an entire ecosystem that doesn’t really integrate well with each other, and the development of large system integrators that were necessary to bridge this technical gap. They often move slowly and their services can be costly. With Freedom, the need for such expertise is reduced or potentially removed completely.

The Evolution of Industrial Robotics

Robotics automation has been possible for decades now. For the last 50 years, everything was done via Programmable Logic Controls (PLC). The technology behind PLC is basic but very powerful. It was reliable and created opportunities for customizable factory configurations. A lot of technology was created with this system in mind. 

The problem with a PLC is that it’s expensive and complicated to change. It’s great for an initial manufacturing automation setup, but every incremental change after that initial installation becomes equally expensive. 

Software solutions were created to combat the speed and cost issues of PLC updates. They had the capability to integrate systems together, but these solutions were built with very technical operators in mind. If you have the time and technical knowledge to execute scraping, device connection, and remote control, these can be good solutions, but there is a high bar to entry and it can be expensive to maintain scripts or diagnose problems. And the fundamental problem we see is that it’s rare to find someone with that technical ability, who is also an expert in the manufacturing process itself. 

Freedom’s platform combines the capabilities you’ll find in both software and hardware-oriented solutions but has been built from the perspective of a non-technical user. Your average operator may not be an expert on any programming languages, but he does understand exactly what’s happening on the floor of his factory and how day-to-day operations are impacted by robotics slowdowns. 

With Freedom Fleet Control, he can now be empowered to make adjustments as part of this continuous improvement process without having to be slowed down or blocked by a lack of expertise. And by having all the devices speak the same language, we can now make it easier to have your robots work together instead of in silos. For example, through Freedom Robotics, you can have one robot pause if another robot is in an intersection, or you can trigger a mission when a different device completes their mission. By pairing an easy to use interface with a data pipeline that makes sure all the robots are speaking the same language, we have unlocked the true potential of the devices our customers are investing in.

We didn’t reinvent the wheel here, but we did make it easier to turn. Freedom’s Enterprise edition is more flexible and infinitely more scalable. Consider it like this: email has been around since the creation of the internet, but it wasn’t until Yahoo and its contemporaries created a better user experience that the public started utilizing it en masse. Automation is already in the industrial space and has been for 60 years—we’re just making it easier for anyone to leverage. 

Use the Force

Our original project name for the development of the Fleet Control functionality was Chikara 力 (Japanese for “The Force”). Obviously a nod to one of our favorite films, but we envisioned a force that could bring the entire factory floor together. We identified these islands of automation that didn’t speak the same language and we challenged ourselves to take a robotics-centric view and find a way for all these industrial devices to communicate effectively with one another, rather than relying on obscure scripts living in separate places that you had to hope wouldn’t fail. 

Fleet Control marries introspection into individual devices with high-level control. With it, you can see what’s happening at the core of each device in a way that’s brand-agnostic and brand-independent and in a way that makes sense to someone without a graduate degree in robotics. Beyond just seeing what’s happening with each unit, you can easily connect them. Once all your devices are connected, we are able to trigger actions and missions on one robot, based on the status of a robot of a different brand. The most common use case for this is traffic and intersection management, but the possibilities extend beyond that. 

The genesis of this project came from a need we saw over and over again with our users. They’d ask us things like “Can you help me find this robot that’s been missing in my factory for days?” or “How can I prevent these two different brands of robots from colliding with one another all the time?” In response, we developed the concept of Open Fleet Language and once we had that brand-agnostic language as a backbone, we knew we could have the devices talk to each other. 

Our goal was to avoid taking over Mission Manager functionality unless it was absolutely necessary, since many of our customers were generally happy with how their mission management works. With our flexible integration strategy, we found a way to sit on top of all the fleet managers at once and serve as a high-level guide providing handshakes and interlocks between the devices. This allows us to get integration with brands very quickly, making the system both scalable and easy to configure. 

Our users have been asking for quite some time for a single solution to the complex challenges of managing a robotics fleet. We had a great understanding of the monitoring and telemetry side of things, but this project has allowed us to develop an innovative solution for traffic management across different brands and types of devices. 

Interested in seeing Fleet Control in action? Click the link below to book a free demo with our team. 

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