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FiFi, at your service

Bär Automation_Fifi transport vehicle

Tap, swipe, drag – these are instinctive actions for many of us when we see a screen and want to use it. With experiences shaped by our everyday use of smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles, it's natural that we apply the same logic at the workplace as well. Gesture controls are more than just a gimmick, something which Bär Automation – working together with the Institute of Mechanical Handling and Logistics (IFL) at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) – has proved through the development of FiFi, a goods transport vehicle whose visual center is an industrial PC from B&R.

FiFi is a battery-powered goods transporter built on Bär's proven driverless transport system. Fitted with a 3D camera, the vehicle can recognize people and their hand gestures and interpret them as commands to control its own movements.

"We decided to use a kinetic camera on the first prototype vehicle," explains Michael Herkert, project and sales manager at Bär Automation. "This is the same depth perception camera used on the PS2 gaming console, and as a result of its widespread use it is available at an attractive price."

Camera provides 3D representation of its surroundings

The camera features an integrated infrared depth sensor that helps create a 3D image of the surrounding area. The software then extracts a skeleton structure of any person in the camera's field of view, analyzes their arm movements and compares them against predefined gestures to determine the appropriate control command.

"Processing these algorithms requires a high performance computer," says Bär's control systems expert, Dominik Merkel. "What's more, because the unit is battery-powered, the PC needs to have low energy consumption, must be suited to mobile use and needs to fit into the limited space available on FiFi."

Bär Automation_image processing software
Image processing software running on an industrial PC uses the data from the 3D camera to generate a skeleton structure of humans in order to interpret their gestures. (Source: Bär Automation GmbH)

Using the Automation PC 910 for image processing

FiFi's developers found the perfect solution in the form of the Automation PC 910 from B&R. "Not only does this industrial PC provide the level of computing performance we need, it uses power very efficiently and is highly resilient against vibrations and other environmental factors," says Herkert. "Its compact design and competitive pricing also played a role in our decision."

From the range of CPU options available for the Automation PC 910, they chose a motherboard based on a quad core Intel® Core™ i7 processor. An Automation Panel 900 multi-touch unit with a 15" screen provides the HMI platform. If required, FiFi can also be fitted with a second identical panel. In both cases the HMI units are linked to the image processing computer via Smart Display Link (SDL). This communications connection works in both directions and requires just one cable to transfer image data and touch signals as well as signals from any optionally included buttons or USB ports.

Bär Automation_Fifi transport vehicle #3
(Source: Bär Automation GmbH)


"The Automation PC 910 uses power very efficiently and is highly resilient against vibrations and other environmental factors. Its compact design and competitive pricing also played a role in our decision. With its powerful computing performance it is the ideal solution for data intensive mobile applications like FiFi." Michael Herkert, Project and Sales Manager, Bär Automation GmbH

Ready to go with zero programming

The image processing system interprets the gestures made by the operator and generates commands for the control system to the corresponding axes on FiFi.

A built-in laser scanner monitors FiFi's path to prevent collisions with people or obstacles. This allows the vehicle to be maneuvered without any programming, configuration or training to perform a versatile range of tasks.

Additional flexibility is provided by the vehicle's five different operating modes: Maneuvering Mode allows FiFi to be controlled by gestures with fine positioning for loading and unloading materials from carriers. Follow Mode allows FiFi to follow on the heel of individual users so that they can keep their hands free for other activities. If large quantities of goods need to be transported, several FiFi vehicles can be operated in Cluster Mode behind a lead FiFi vehicle. For conventional operation as an AGV, FiFi can be used in Line Mode. With this mode, the user can send FiFi to a pre-programmed destination and is then free to start the next task. The fifth mode is Hybrid Mode, which provides a combination of follow and line modes. In this mode, FiFi maintains a constant distance from the user as it follows the defined route.

Universally applicable

"Thanks to the operating modes we have developed, FiFi is not restricted to any particular application. The vehicle is undoubtedly destined for use in intralogistics, however, and will quickly pay for itself in many different areas – from goods inwards through to order picking, packaging and goods outwards," says Bär's managing director, Ralf Bär.

During a pilot project at a German car manufacturer, FiFi easily passed the practical test involving order picking. As the picker takes items from the shelf, FiFi follows in hybrid mode, maintaining a constant distance as it follows its defined path. This frees up the picker's hands and reduces the distance that he has to travel. When order picking is complete, the user guides FiFi to a handover point. Here, a transponder in the floor ensures that the FiFi automatically switches to line mode and brings the goods to their destination just like an AGV.

Bär Automation_Fifi transport vehicle #2
As an order picker takes items from a shelf, FiFi follows in hybrid mode, maintaining a constant distance as it follows a defined path. (Source: Bär Automation GmbH)

Industrial readiness proven in pilot application

"This test application proved that the concept is completely suitable for industrial applications and that it is quickly accepted and valued by staff," reports Bär. "With demand for more versatile production, as well as demographic developments, we will be seeing this type of assistance system find its way into more and areas of use, both business and private. I can say that with confidence, judging by the responses to our presentation of FiFi at the LogiMAT exhibition and the orders we have received so far."

Bär Automation is already thinking ahead to the next variants of the vehicle. "We won't have any problems expanding the gesture controls or incorporating additional features such as a hub function – thanks to the high-performance B&R industrial PC," says Bär.

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