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5/6/24 10:58 AM2 MIN READ

Advancing Technologies & AMR - Impact to Industry, Manufacturing and Commercial Environments

Advancing Technologies & AMR - Impact to Industry, Manufacturing and Commercial Environments

Shaping Tomorrow: Melonee Wise's Influence on the Robotics Landscape


A Trailblazer in Robotics Engineering

Melonee Wise, VP/GM of Robotics Automation at Zebra Technologies, is a leading figure in the robotics industry. In 2022 she was a recipient of the prestigious Joseph Engelberger Award for Technology, which has been deemed the “Nobel Prize” of Robotics.  Along with her innovative work in the industry illustrating the vast potential and dynamic evolution of automation and her numerous patents all have gained her the nickname of “Robot Ninja”.  

From Side Projects to Industry Leadership

Wise's journey to her current elite status came about in a rather random and unpredictable way. While working on her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she became disinterested in her studies and began working on autonomous cars as a side project. Despite industrial robotics dominating the field in the early 21st century, Wise fell in love with modern robotics.  

Wise's side projects led to an opportunity to work on converting a Ford Escape Hybrid into a fly-by-wire for autonomous control in California. The success of this project caught the attention of decision-makers involved in launching Willow Garage, a robotics research lab and technology incubator. Invited to join Willow Garage, Wise's career in robotics was officially launched. As the Robot Development Manager at Willow Garage, WISE led a team of engineers and designers to develop next generation mobile manipulation hardware. Incubated by Willow Garage she went onto Unbounded Robotics as the CEO and Co-founder developing a next generation low-cost mobile manipulation robots for the research market. From Unbounded Robotics Melonee became the CEO and Co-founder of Fetch Robotics, which she led and built the business until its acquisition by Zebra Technologies for $305M in 2021, solidifying Wise's impact on the industry.

The Evolution of Mobile Robotics

Wise has played a pivotal role in transforming the landscape of mobile robotics. From her academic roots to significant industry contributions, she highlights the evolution from traditional industrial robotic arms to more adaptable technologies like Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). She notes, “I think that one of the things is that industrial robots, have evolved, right? They've become more collaborative and so we're seeing a lot of robots come out of cages and I think that, collaborative robots is one natural extension of that. But I also think that in a parallel universe to industrial robot arms, there were AGVs, and they were in somewhat caged themselves, maybe not physically caged, but they were contained to path following or other environmental features like reflectors and stuff like that. And so we're not just coming out of cages, we're coming off of the train tracks." This shift enables robots to navigate beyond fixed paths and adapt to complex environments, proving essential in modern applications such as agriculture and construction, where adaptive robotics can significantly enhance efficiency and productivity.

Distinctions Between AGVs and AMRs

Understanding the differences between Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) is pivotal for industries considering mobile automation technologies. Melonee Wise offered a comprehensive explanation during the interview, emphasizing how these distinctions influence their deployment and management within industrial and commercial settings.

In the past AGVs followed magnetic tapes, wires, or markers on the floor to navigate through their operational environments. Wise states that "AGV stands for Automated Guided Vehicle where the guiding is some kind of guided path that the robot is following that is fixed in the environment and this provides several affordances from a safety perspective, because if you know the path or the routeMobile Robot on Factory Floor that the robot's always going to take, you can make certain safety affordances and people understand where the robots going to travel,” This reliance on predefined paths not only enhances safety by reducing the likelihood of unpredictable movements but also potentially reduces the overall cost of the technology. The reduced need for sophisticated sensors and complex computing power can make AGVs a more cost-effective option for tasks that require repetitive, simple movements over the same route.

Conversely, Autonomous Mobile Robot or AMRs represent a significant evolution in robotic autonomy. Equipped with advanced sensors, cameras, and sometimes even sophisticated machine learning algorithms, AMRs can make real-time navigational decisions. This allows them to understand and interpret their environment, detect obstacles, and find alternative paths without human intervention. The key advantage of AMRs lies in their flexibility and intelligence. They can dynamically adapt to changes in their environment, which makes them particularly valuable in spaces where obstacles and layouts change frequently. “And I think that one of the things that you see with autonomous mobile robots and that the same thing that collaborative robots offer is more flexibility in some cases, reduced overhead, reduced cost, easier usability, because we're able to get in there and interact with the robots to reduce the overhead of time of interaction to enable the robots to get into places they traditionally wouldn't be able to and to access workflows that traditionally we just couldn't do with technology in cages or on train tracks.” says Wise.

This fundamental distinction impacts how each type of robot is deployed and managed within different industrial landscapes. For instance, AGVs are ideal for environments with controlled settings and predictable tasks, such as manufacturing assembly lines or simple transport tasks within warehouses. On the other hand, AMRs are better suited for more dynamic environments that require adaptability, such as in fulfillment centers or hospitals where obstacles and floor layouts may frequently change.

Safety standards also vary significantly between AGVs and AMRs due to their operational differences. The deployment of AGVs typically involves rigorous assessments of the paths and the installation of physical barriers, whereas AMRs require advanced software to ensure safe interactions, not just with the physical environment but also with human coworkers.

The choice between AGVs and AMRs ultimately depends on the specific needs of the operation, including flexibility, complexity of tasks, and the environment. Understanding these distinctions and the inherent capabilities and limitations of each can help businesses make more informed decisions, leading to better integration of robotics into their operations and a higher return on investment.

The Role of AMRs in Today’s Automation Explosion

The adoption of automation technologies has accelerated rapidly, a trend that was already underway before recent global challenges made automation a critical component of industry operations. Wise discussed how AMRs have been central to this shift, offering more than just labor replacement—they enhance operational capabilities. "You know one is the usability arc that we've been starting to see over the last five years with mobile robots and in collaborative robots I mean a lot of collaborative robots, investing a lot more in how we program them, how we teach them, the tools for teaching them, same with autonomous mobile robots." Wiserack-conveying-with-producing-and-maintaining-logi-2023-11-27-05-31-57-utc remarked. The adaptability and efficiency of AMRs make them invaluable as industries strive to innovate and stay competitive in a fast-evolving market.

As the field of robotics advances, Melonee forecasts significant enhancements in the intelligence and societal integration of robots. She envisions a future where robots possess advanced social and semantic awareness, enabling them to discern and adapt to various elements in their environments. "I think I going forward in the space, the things that people should be looking for are more socially aware robots more semantically aware robots, you know, we are making great strides in the field in terms of robots understanding their environment, knowing the difference between a forklift and a person or a piece of trash in order to be more effective, the robots need to have different behaviors based on whether it's a person or a forklift if you really want to execute faster," Wise articulated. This development will not only allow robots to undertake more complex and diverse tasks but will also facilitate their deeper integration into human-centric activities and workflows, thereby broadening the scope of their application.

However, Wise also pointed to major hurdles on the path to this future, specifically the critical need for standardization within the industry. A unified framework for robotic communication and operation is paramount for achieving interoperability and operational efficiency across different systems and industries. Standardization would ensure that robots developed by different manufacturers could work seamlessly together and integrate into existing infrastructures without extensive modifications.

Wise emphasized the importance of this integration, "One of the biggest problems that we have right now in our industry and we see this not only in autonomous mobile robots, but we see this in industrial robots is the language with which we used to describe the world. If every product has a new term for defining a stop sign, it's very hard to talk about interoperability.”

Standardization also addresses safety and reliability concerns, making the deployment of robotics more predictable and secure. Establishing common standards could lead to better safety protocols that are universally understood and implemented, reducing the risk of accidents, and ensuring a smoother integration of robots into diverse environments. The push for standardization must be a collaborative effort involving industry leaders, technologists, and regulatory bodies to create guidelines that foster innovation while ensuring safety and efficiency. This collaborative approach would help overcome one of the significant barriers to the widespread adoption of advanced robotics technologies, paving the way for a more interconnected and automated future.


Melonee Wise's contributions and vision offer a roadmap for the future of robotics. Her insights during the CalTV episode serve as a beacon for those navigating the complexities of automation and mobile robotics. As we continue to witness rapid advancements in this field, staying informed through leaders like Wise is crucial for anyone looking to leverage these technologies effectively. 

Watch the full episode with Melonee Wise on CalTV.

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