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Transforming Logistics And Supply Chain With Vision-Guided Robotic Manipulation In the complex fabric of the US economy, the supply chain industry stands as a crucial backbone, orchestrating the smooth movement of goods from producers to consumers.

By Vikash Jha

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Karthikeyan Yuvaraj

In the complex fabric of the US economy, the supply chain industry stands as a crucial backbone, orchestrating the smooth movement of goods from producers to consumers. Recent years have witnessed a remarkable surge in this industry, characterized by both its growing volume and the integration of robotics and automation. The role of robotics in shaping the US supply chain landscape is undeniable. Technological advancements have led to a deep integration of robotics, streamlining operations, enhancing efficiency, and reducing costs.

Central to this transformation is Karthikeyan Yuvaraj an expert in designing and programming advanced robots. His impact is evident from the patents and academic papers that highlight his significant role in advancing robotics and computer vision in the logistics and supply chain domain. His journey spans influential positions at global tech giants like Alphabet, the parent organization of Google, and Honeywell. Throughout his career, his focus remains on pioneering cutting-edge robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies tailored specifically for the logistics and supply chain sector.

Karthikeyan's journey began during his pursuit of a Master's Degree at Drexel University. Reflecting on that time, he shares, "While pursuing my Master's degree in robotics at Drexel University, I initially lacked a clear focus within the field of robotics. However, everything changed when the Fukushima nuclear accident occurred." This event, which took place in March 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, led to loss of life and severe injuries. In response, the United States Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiated the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). This challenge aimed to create robots capable of responding to disasters, involving tasks such as turning valves, climbing ladders, driving vehicles, and using drills. Karthikeyan and his colleagues from the Drexel Autonomous Systems Lab (DASL) received funding from DARPA to participate in the DRC, competing against entities like NASA, MIT, Boston Dynamics, and Lockheed Martin.

In the DRC, Karthikeyan played a pivotal role in developing visual sensing and software systems for the humanoid DRC Hubo robot. His design of the robot's sensor head endowed it with the ability to see, grasp, and manipulate objects—an essential skill for tasks like the driving challenge, which required steering wheel manipulation. Another noteworthy contribution was creating a telemanipulation interface, enabling human operators to guide the robot remotely. His efforts resulted in multiple peer-reviewed research papers presented at respected platforms such as Springer's Journal of Intelligent Service Robotics and international robotics conferences.

Karthikeyan's research, along with the collaboration of fellow robotics researchers in the DRC, played a vital role in advancing research and innovation in vision-centric robotic manipulation. After the DRC concluded, a surge of startups and R&D initiatives emerged, with a pronounced focus on vision-based robotic manipulation across various industries. One sector that particularly benefitted from the lessons of the DRC was logistics and supply chain operations.

During his tenure at Honeywell, Karthikeyan achieved another significant milestone by developing a robotic truck unloader. These robust machines, reminiscent of tanks, operate within truck trailers to simplify cargo unloading. Although physically demanding, this task often requires minimal cognitive effort, making it ideal for automation. However, the challenge was enabling robots to differentiate between diverse boxes in a crowded truck—a task that comes naturally to humans. Overcoming this obstacle was a significant accomplishment, as incorporating robotic truck unloaders held the potential to revolutionize logistics and supply chain operations.

Karthikeyan's solution involved creating a sophisticated vision system, integrating LIDAR and Infrared/RGB cameras. This cutting-edge system equips robots with the ability to perceive their environment much like humans, complete with 3D spatial awareness that enables precise cargo manipulation. Industry leader FedEx, renowned for its expertise in package delivery, embraced these robotic truck unloaders across its facilities. This journey culminated in the approval of numerous patents in the United States and internationally. His patent titled "3D-2D Vision System for Robotic Carton Unloading" gained recognition from significant players in the robotics and AI domain, including Amazon, Caterpillar, and Boston Dynamics.

After Honeywell, Karthikeyan joined Vicarious AI, a Silicon Valley startup focused on Artificial General Intelligence for warehousing. His innovative work on a robot enabling others to see and grasp novel objects resulted in a patented solution. This robot was deployed in major US warehousing facilities, showcasing robotics' significance in crises. Google's acquisition of Vicarious AI in June 2022 emphasized its pioneering role in Robotics/AI.

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