Kiva Systems in North Reading, MA today. The orange Kiva robots (or drive units) move shelves (or inventory pods) to a number of manned work cells based on a centralized, real-time job scheduler. Humans are only present at the entry and exit stations of the warehouse while the entire inner storage area is essentially automated. According to the Kiva paradigm, pick or place jobs are brought to the worker and storage of the pods is left to automation.
Kiva installations have been fielded with up to 1,000 robots as of 2010. Seeing the real-time resource allocation algorithm in action is quite fascinating. As described in Wurman et al., 2008, the resource allocation algorithm is based on a number of heuristics to enable real-time planning for these large numbers of agents and jobs. Additionally, uncertainty is removed from the system by structuring the environment (e.g. through barcode patterns on the floor) and by having real-time feedback on each robot's position through wireless links across the warehouse.
I'm very thankful for the opportunity to visit the new Kiva facilities in midst of their construction. The Kiva story is very inspiring to all aspiring entrepreneurs in robotics as well: yes, multi-robot systems outside of the military can be supported with a strong business case--just keep on searching for that business plan! :-)
The snowy weather conditions added even more excitement to this five-days-before-Xmas trip!