When you receive a package you’ve ordered online, do you ever take a moment to think about how that package made its way to you? You might not realize it, but it’s likely that an entire army of autonomous robots made it possible for your order to be quickly and accurately packed before it was shipped to you. The robotics expert responsible for this is 2020 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Raffaello D’Andrea, co-inventor of Kiva Systems’ Mobile Robotic Material Handling for Order Fulfillment.
D’Andrea, who was born in Italy and moved to Canada at age 9, has had an unstoppable drive to experiment and to understand and explain new concepts from his earliest years. In fact, his curious nature earned him the childhood nickname “Professore.”
Though D’Andrea says that as he entered university he initially had no desire to become a professor, he began to realize that beyond teaching, research could define his career in academics. In an interview with NIHF, D’Andrea explained, “I saw how much freedom there is in academia if you choose to exercise that freedom. Most people don’t exercise their freedom. And I don’t mean their freedom of speech; I mean freedom in what they pursue.”
This freedom to follow any path in academia allowed D’Andrea to pursue robotics. Though he had never participated in a robotics class until he began teaching robotics at Cornell University, he decided he’d like to become an expert in the field — a goal he most certainly accomplished.
Bringing Warehouses into the Future
In 2003, after co-founding the systems engineering program at Cornell and serving as faculty adviser and system architect of the four-time world champion Cornell robot soccer team, D’Andrea began his sabbatical at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he was contacted by Mick Mountz, the chief architect behind what would become Kiva Systems. Following a series of meetings with Mountz, D’Andrea ended his sabbatical and joined Mountz and Peter Wurman on their mission to transform order fulfillment.
While e-commerce had been growing rapidly since the beginning of the 21st century, the team of Mountz, Wurman and D’Andrea understood that material handling within distribution centers still relied on inefficient, decades-old techniques. Their Kiva system would solve this problem by using mobile robots to lift and move racks of inventory shelves to a shipping station where a worker could select items for individual shipments, significantly reducing the time from order placement to shipping.
Not only was the Kiva system fast and efficient, it was also graceful. In a conversation with NIHF, D’Andrea explained, “From a motion perspective, one of the things that strikes you when you watch our Kiva robots moving these pods that are up to 1,000 pounds is just how gracefully they do it — the acceleration profile, the way that they handle moving the weight around. It turns out that the aesthetics of the motion and how robust and reliable it is are closely tied together.”
D’Andrea would lead the systems architecture, robot design, robot navigation and coordination, and learning-based control algorithms development at Kiva until 2008, when he returned to academia and founded the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control at ETH Zurich. He continued to serve as Kiva’s chief technical adviser until 2012, the year Kiva was acquired by Amazon. The system now operates as Amazon Robotics, with over 200,000 autonomous mobile robots deployed in Amazon warehouses.
D’Andrea, along with colleagues Mountz and Wurman, will join the rest of our 2020 class of NIHF Inductees to celebrate the 48th Annual NIHF Induction Ceremony on May 7, 2020. We invite you to read more of our blogs introducing our inspiring 2020 Inductees at invent.org.