Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent company of Subaru, began developing robots for transporting cargo in pharmaceutical plants back in 2007, similar to the one being tested by Panasonic. Having won an award for excellence at the “Robot of the Year Awards” (Industrial Robots Division), it is now being used in a Tsumura plant which packages food items and daily necessities.
The 200kg (440 lbs) robots can connect to different trolleys and are equipped with CCD cameras which track a line taped to the ceiling that is approximately 5mm thick. This system is considerably cheaper and less time-consuming to set up compared to standard AGV (Automatic Guided Vehicle) magnetic rail systems installed on the floor, and can operate smoothly in areas only 1m (3’3″) wide. Through IC cards, the robots are able to automatically identify what products they are transporting for better quality assurance.
The robots make use of proprietary software developed with Professor Makoto Mizukata of the Shibaura Institute of Technology (Intelligent Systems Research Department). Different software modules for line tracing, ultrasonic sensor recognition, ultrasonic sensor wall-running, wheel odometry, laser triangulation, and more (18 in total) are set to be commercialized by 2010. One software module allows robots to communicate with the elevator system allowing one or two robots to ride elevators to move between floors.
They’re hoping to sell about 1,000 units at a rate of approximately 1,000,000 JPY ($11,000 USD), roughly half the price of competitive systems. Subaru boasts a 30% boost in productivity thanks to the robots’ ability to operate 24 hours a day, while reducing the line staff by 50%. The expected return on investment is about 2.5 years.