OmniOn looks to power, network next-gen delivery robots

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OmniOn supports multiple technologies, including robotics.

OmniOn supports multiple technologies, including robotics. Click here to enlarge. Source: OmniOn Power

As delivery robots and autonomous vehicles spread, much of the design and development attention has focused on safe navigation and obstacle detection, according to OmniOn Power Inc. However, they will also require reliable charging and communications infrastructure, it said.

“We’ve mainly seen mobile robots indoors in factories, warehouses, or even restaurants,” said Gopal Mitra, global segment leader for industrials at OmniOn. “2023 was a big year for cost optimization for robotics companies. They tried to address space challenges and labor shortages in e-commerce, and power supply for delivery robots outdoors is another real challenge.”

“We look at three basic technologies: cloud and edge computing, which need to be supported by 5G, and power,” he told The Robot Report. “OmniOn Power addresses high-voltage DC, outdoor installations, and products for onboard robotics, including mounted power that should be able to work with fluctuating voltages as batteries deplete.”

OmniOn spun out of ABB

Formerly known as ABB Power Conversion, AcBel Polytech Inc. acquired the division in July 2023 and renamed it OmniOn Power Inc. in October.

The Plano, Texas-based company gained telecommunications experience as a part of Bell Labs and was part of General Electric Co. and ABB Ltd. OmniOn claimed that its “reliable products, industry expertise, and partnerships are helping customers realize the full potential of 5G, supporting expansive data center demands, [and] powering Industry 4.0.”

“Our business has grown in the robotics space, partly because of the lack of innovation as a lot of folks focused on scaling up rather than introducing new designs,” Mitra said. “Channels are trying to adopt the right robots for ‘order online, pick up at store,’ direct fulfillment, and warehouses. The increasing amount of returns is also a big concern, and we’re addressing a $500 million portion of the total addressable market by optimizing for the cost of development and implementation.”

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Power innovations to enable autonomy

Batteries add weight to robots and drones, and they can be affected by extreme cold. OmniOn said that more innovation is needed.

“There are two schools of thought for batteries — they could be long-lasting, or you can go with capacitors,” said Mitra. “As for the environment, there’s the harmonics on the grid and temperature, which can be up to 120 to 130 degrees [Fahrenheit; 48.8 to 54.4 Celsius] in places like Dallas.”

“Cold is more of an issue on the battery side than the internals, where the 2% heat generated is usually enough to keep power electronics warm,” he added. “We’re looking at the optimal time to charge, as well as discharge and weight.”

“There have been a number of innovations in batteries,” Mitra noted. “Lithium-ion is very popular in robotics and electric vehicles, and sodium-ion and other polymers are being explored. How U.S. investment in the semiconductor industry responds to China’s prevalence will also affect innovation in the next 10 years. Some are now looking at vertical stacking for denser chips.”

“OmniOn already has engineers working on providing power supplies to telecom and 5G networks,” he said. “We’re enablers of autonomy.”

OmniOn is working on powering delivery and warehouse robots.

OmniOn is working on providing power and connectivity to delivery and warehouse robots. Source: Adobe Stock

Other considerations for robotics

Ways to increase robot uptime include hot-swappable batteries, software that directs opportunistic recharging, and persistent wired or wireless charging on embedded grids, mostly indoors.

“Cost is a big deal — wireless charging is usually near-field using inductive charging, which is very attractive for many robots but can be expensive,” said Mitra. “With contact-based charging, you don’t need a converter circuit onboard the robot.”

By contrast, farming equipment or robotic lawnmowers can have wireless docking, eliminating the risk of clippings getting into contacts, he said. Wireless charging pads throughout a warehouse or factory have a high installation cost but can reduce the weight of batteries and operational costs. All of these options require industry consensus to become more widespread, Mitra observed.

How much can fleet management software help with power?

“It depends on the type of fleet,” replied Mitra. “We’re maturing simple routing within the constraints of restaurants, but delivery robots and vehicles have variable package loads. On the software side, we’ll see the impact of artificial intelligence on warehouse management, from machine vision to order processing.” 

Mitra also said that distributed power generation from photovoltaic cells could change the cost of energy.

“There are lots of opportunities to improve overall efficiency, but it’s a chicken-and-egg problem — first, the application has to come,” he said. “In hardware, non-isolated board-mounted products are emerging.”

5G to play a role as edge/cloud computing shifts

“For delivery robots, most of the compute is onboard, with nearby 5G hubs enabling mesh networks,” Mitra explained. “Edge computing needs to be supported by a 5G backbone, and peer-to-peer networks can manage the load.”

While robots and autonomous vehicles (AVs) need onboard processing for a spatial understanding of their environments and to navigate complex surroundings, the delivery function and reporting would benefit from 5G, he said.

“Look at certain regions in San Francisco — AVs are limited to certain areas, where the routes are largely pre-programmed,” said Mitra. “Once we see a prevalence of 5G and edge computing, machine learning for transport will be more scalable.”

“We have an engagement with a robotics company working with a major retailer on managing inventory and goods-to-person materials handling in the warehouse. Multi-tenant warehouses are coming,” Mitra said. “In addition to automated storage and retrieval systems [ASRS], we’re looking at multi-robot scenarios in the parking lot for groceries.”

OnmiOn provides the BPS 48V stackable power system for 5G systems.

The BPS 48V stackable power system is designed for 5G systems. Source: OmniOn

AI, humanoids could create new demands

Growing interest in applying generative AI to robotics will also affect networking and power demands.

“They’re not talked about yet in the context of on-premise or edge computing, but it will be interesting to see if delivery robots get these capabilities,” Mitra said. “AI has helped industry understand the need for high-performance computing, which has put a lot of pressure on power-supply manufacturers for smaller, more efficient systems.”

Similarly, interest in mobile manipulation and the humanoid form factor will also intensify pressure on compute and power management.

“Even if you just put an articulated robot arm on a mobile base, stepper motors require eight times the current to start, just to change from static to movement,” said Mitra.

“We still don’t have a good solution for batteries that can support humanoids for the long term,” he asserted. “They’ll also need a power train that can handle a wide range of discharge, from walking to the necessary strength for lifting boxes.”

OmniOn said it expects the demand for delivery robots, automated warehouses, and connected infrastructure to grow at 12% to 14%. Power management may not be standardized, depending on the size of a robot and its number of sensors, and edge/cloud computing and different charging approaches will continue to evolve, said Mitra. 

“We’re excited see how wireless charging affects the robotics space,” he said. “While the cost has led to different adoption than initially expected, in the long term, the cost of infrastructure could be lower, and it could be more easily managed.”

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