Self-driving forklifts are here to revolutionize warehouses, for better or worse

Imagine a future Blade Runner-esque workplace in which human and robot co-workers work side by side without it seeming in the least bit remarkable. As it turns out, you don’t need to be much of a futurist to conceive of such a scenario: It’s been the day-to-day reality of factory and warehouse workers for decades.

The term “automation” was first coined in 1948 by Delmar S. Harder, an engineer and vice president at the Ford Motor Company to describe the handoff of particularly heavy, repetitive, and dangerous jobs to machines in industrial settings like factories. The first industrial robots and automated warehouses began appearing in the 1960s — and have only grown in number since then.

Not all jobs can be easily automated, however. Consider the job of forklift operator, for instance. On paper (or, well, screen), forklifts fall under the same remit as many previous industrial robots: Lifting and moving heavy goods from one place to another. But operating a forklift is far from easy or predictable. It requires significant awareness and decision-making on the part of the operator. Forklifts can weigh significantly more than the weight of a loaded passenger car, have to grapple with uneven weight distribution, turn with their back wheels, rather than their front ones, and can be difficult to stop. It’s no exaggeration to say that they can be tougher to drive than a road car.

Operating the forklift is the most dangerous thing to do in the warehouse.

A Union City, California, startup called Third Wave Automation believes it’s cracked the problem, though. And it’s helping to create the self-driving forklifts to prove it. Using expertise in fields ranging from robotics to computer vision, Third Wave has developed technology that promises to help revolutionize the warehouses of tomorrow. Emerging from stealth this month, the two-year-old startup has just announced a funding round of $15 million to help it do exactly that.

“[Forklift driving is] a dangerous job that requires certification, and has been historically very difficult to keep staffed,” Arshan Poursohi, CEO and co-founder of Third Wave Automation, who was previously a roboticist at Google and director of engineering at Toyota Research Institute, told Digital Trends. “Going by OSHA-reported injuries, operating the forklift is the most dangerous thing to do in the warehouse. We’ve heard from countless warehouse operators that it’s hard to keep enough qualified folks on staff to get the bandwidth from operations that modern supply chains demand.”


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