Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

ABB and Covariant bring AI robotics to warehouses

Steve Rogerson
March 10, 2020



Swiss technology giant ABB is working with Silicon Valley AI start-up Covariant to bring AI-enabled robotics to market, starting with a fully autonomous warehouse order fulfilment system.
 
The partnership brings together the two companies with a shared vision for robotics enabled by AI, where intelligent robots work alongside humans in dynamic environments, collectively learning and improving with every task completed.
 
Given the accelerated global growth experienced in the ecommerce sector, ABB identified a significant opportunity for AI-enabled robotics across a broad range of applications including logistics, warehousing, and parcels and mail sorting. Global revenues in ecommerce are expected to increase by over 50 per cent within the next five years, rising from €1.7tn in 2019 to €2.6tn in 2024, according to Statista.
 
The growing demand for ecommerce fulfilment services and the complex and labour-intensive nature of the process offers potential for intelligent automation. The market is growing at a steady pace (4 to 5% CAGR) and is expected to reach a value of €51.3bn by 2021, according to procurement intelligence firm Beroe.
 
Today, warehouse operations are labour intensive, and the industry struggles to find and retain employees for picking and packing. While robots are ideally suited to repetitive tasks, until now they lacked the intelligence to identify and handle tens of thousands of constantly changing products in a typical dynamic warehouse operation.
 
ABB launched a global competition in 2019 to assess 20 leading AI technology start-ups on their approach to 26 real-world picking, packing and sorting challenges. The aim was to understand if AI was mature enough to unlock the potential for robotics and automation in the segment. ABB also sought a technology partner with which to co-develop a robust AI product capable of supporting autonomous materials handling, enabling its robots to handle items of infinite variety.
 
The Covariant Brain is a universal AI that allows robots to see, reason and act in the world around them, completing tasks too complex and varied for traditional programmed robots. Covariant's software enables robots to engage in reinforcement learning, adapting to new tasks on their own through trial and error and therefore constantly broadening the range of objects they can pick.
 
"Our partnership with Covariant is part of our strategy to expand into new growth sectors such as distribution and ecommerce and to leverage the scaling potential in these fields," said Sami Atiya, president of ABB's robotics business. “It perfectly complements our offering and adds to our aim to be the number one choice in robotics for our customers. Through the combination of artificial intelligence with our robots, we are opening an entire new field of opportunities and applications for a variety of industries.”
 
The first installation of the ABB and Covariant AI-enabled system is already being deployed at Active Ants, a provider of ecommerce fulfilment services for web businesses in Utrecht in the Netherlands.
 
"If you want to advance artificial intelligence, we now need to take it out of the laboratory and apply it to the real world," said Peter Chen, Covariant's chief executive and co-founder. “We are delighted to be able to work with ABB to create AI robotics for customers worldwide, benefitting from ABB's nearly five decades of domain knowledge and expertise in deploying automation systems into the most demanding industrial environments.”
 
Founded in 2017 by AI researchers and roboticists from UC Berkeley and Open AI, Covariant is bringing artificial intelligence research breakthroughs to industry. The company is headquartered in Berkeley, California.