Forget Cars, This Company Has Self-Driving Forklifts Figured Out

Apr 26, 2016

As companies like Uber and Google work to make self-driving cars, a local company is working on another autonomous vehicle: forklifts.

Engineers and designers at Seegrid have spent the last decade perfecting technology that allows automated forklifts to travel through warehouses and move heavy product without a human behind the wheel. The machines roll about like robots, making noises that sound like beeps, bells and sirens as a means of communicating with one another and employees.

At the Seegrid headquarters in Coraopolis, workers assemble and program hundreds of self-driving industrial trucks before they’re shipped to warehouses nationwide.

CEO Jim Rock said the key behind self-driving forklifts is technology that combines complex computer coding and tiny cameras. 

“We’re taking a normal stock off-the-shelf forklift and adding robotics to it – software and hardware so it can run autonomously,” he said.

Seegrid Vice President Jeff Christiansen said each robot is equipped with 10 cameras which serve as eyes. 

“In fact, the name Seegrid is because our trucks can sort of see the world around them,” Christiansen said. “So that’s really what our technology is about.”

The company was created by students at Carnegie Mellon University and with funding from Giant Eagle.

Each Seegrid industrial robot takes only a few minutes for an operator to program or “train” at a warehouse.

“You simply get on the machine, hit record, drive it on some particular route, get off, hit play and it just loops around on that route forever,” Rock said.

The robots are also equipped with a software application called "Seegrid Supervisor," which prevents them from running into one another when multiple self-driving forklifts are operating simultaneously in the same location. And sensors can automatically shut down the vehicles whenever a person or another object comes within a certain proximity.

The same type of technology is being tested by car makers and companies like Google and Uber, who are competing to bring the first self-driving passenger vehicle to market. Seegrid has already been contacted by software companies hoping to cash in on the competition. Rock said he sees the automotive market as part of Seegrid’s future. 

“The Tesla, Mercedes,” he said. “It seems like every car company is now investigating some sort of autonomous navigation or safety sensors.”

A key factor behind Seegrid’s success if the company’s safety record. Christiansen said they’re much safer than human-operated forklifts, which are responsible for thousands of workplace injuries each year.

“We’ve driven over 125,000 miles entirely autonomously – so computers driving them – and never had an injury of any kind,” Christiansen said. 

In this week's Tech Headlines: 

  • The University of Pittsburgh honored several alumni and student innovators at a special awards ceremony Monday. More than 120 startup companies have launched as a result of Pitt-based tech developments and innovators from the university have obtained 115 patents in just the last two years.
  • Forget the fuel. How about flying on sunbeams? Two pilots have completed their quest to fly a Swiss-made, solar-powered aircraft around the world.  The flight began last March in Abu Dhabi with several stops in China and Japan. They landed in Hawaii last July, but were then temporarily grounded due to heat damage to the battery system. Their final destination is Silicon Valley, Calif.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.