CSC News

July 15, 2008

Three Engineers, Hundreds of Robots, One Warehouse

Photo of Kiva FoundersBy Erico Guizzo

“The beauty of our system,” Raffaello D'Andrea says as he paces across the warehouse, “is that you don't have to walk over to the shelves to get things—the shelves come to you.” With that, he motions toward some 200 blue plastic racks sitting at the center of the building. A mechanical whir fills the room. And then the robots appear.

Two dozen squat machines, like orange suitcases on wheels, scurry on the floor. They park underneath the man-high racks and start pirouetting; the spinning is part of the mechanism that jacks the racks off the ground. One robot hauls shelves with 12-packs of Mountain Dew; another carries bottles of Redken shampoo. They move along straight lines and make 90-degree turns, maneuvering just 15 centimeters from each other. It's a bit like Pac-Man.

Photo of Robot in Warehouse.“When you see these things moving, you think, ‘Oh my goodness, they're going to hit,’ ” D'Andrea says. “But of course they never do.”

D'Andrea should know. He wrote the robots' control algorithm. An engineering professor formerly at Cornell University and now at ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, he joined Kiva after meeting Mick Mountz, a graduate of MIT and the Harvard Business School, who conceived the idea of using mobile robots to manage inventory. The third founder is Peter Wurman, an expert in multiagent systems and a former professor of computer science at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh.

Raff, Mick, and Pete, as they're known, form a triumvirate of sorts. D'Andrea and Wurman, who are called engineering fellows, oversee system architecture and algorithm development; Mountz, the CEO, drives the business. “They're a well-oiled machine,” says one engineer at the company.  More.

Copyright © 2008 IEEE. Reprinted from Three Engineers, Hundreds of Robots, One Warehouse, IEEE Spectrum, by Erico Guizzo, July 2008.

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