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  • Writer's pictureDoug Schuchart

Do Mobile Robots Need Separate Hardware for Navigation, PLC and Safety? Not Anymore.

Beckhoff collaborated with Navitec to deploy the navigation company’s software for AGVs and AMRs on a virtual machine in TwinCAT/BSD Hypervisor

America in Motion AGV
The consolidation of hardware for PLC, navigation, vision and other functionalities on AGVs opens the doors for new possibilities.

As mobile robots drive forward, they are leaving outdated solutions behind. Case in point: Beckhoff and Navitec Systems have collaborated on a solution to increase navigation, safety and performance capabilities while reducing the amount of controller hardware. This approach leverages Navitec’s leading navigation software on a standard Beckhoff machine controller. Implementing virtual machines via the TwinCAT/BSD Hypervisor was critical to the solution’s success.

Natural-feature navigation is the most adaptive solution for individual route planning and fleet management on Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs) and similar solutions. Legacy AGV guidance systems relied heavily on tape applied to warehouse floors, which caused major constraints. Subsequent technology upgrades, using lidar and countless reflectors stuck to racking, improved AGV capabilities marginally. Both options lacked flexible automation systems, and they also made commissioning drag on too long in the field.

Navitec navigation software for AGVs
Navitec’s natural feature navigation software, Navitrol, is an advanced fleet control system that supports high traffic density and efficient interaction with all factory systems and personnel. (© Navitec, 2023)

Navitec took a different route. The Espoo, Finland-based company with a global presence has been advancing natural-feature navigation since it was founded in 1998. The company initially focused on the mining industry, but quickly grew in size and industries served. For the past 10 years, Navitec has served the material handling industry in applications from manufacturing and automotive to warehousing and fulfillment to service robots for hospitals.

“Today, we offer natural features navigation in warehouses for any vehicle, and we can automate any vehicle type or size, whether it weighs 50 pounds or 500 tons,” says Matthias Otto, Vice President Global Sales at Navitec. “Our comprehensive fleet control can handle more than 150 vehicles indoors (2D navigation) or outdoors (3D navigation) in any weather, and we support the ability for AGVs to drive around obstacles when necessary. Because of the intelligence of our system, we guarantee a mere five-day integration time for basic AGVs to make vehicles production ready, and we provide continued software upgrades as part of our maintenance contract.”

While AGV functionality has grown, enclosure sizes have not. Builders of mobile robots have faced the challenge of squeezing separate hardware for navigation, PLC, safety, vision and more into incredibly tight spaces. In addition to excessive hardware, the black-box systems require separate software and communication protocols that complicate engineering. Using a central CPU for multiple functions made sense for AGVs, but beyond Navitec’s Linux-based software, most other components were completely closed and only worked on expensive, dedicated hardware.

Heat mapping functionality in the Navithor Tools from Navitec’s software
Heat mapping is just one of the Navithor Tools from in Navitec’s software to optimize warehouse applications. (© Navitec, 2023)

Increase AGV flexibility and safety while reducing footprint

Beckhoff has always delivered additional functionality via software rather than adding further unnecessary controllers. Consolidating hardware not only optimizes supply chain concerns, but also lengthens system life cycles. When black-box solutions reach end of life, machine builders typically need to reengineer the entire control system since they are wholly reliant on the single-source supplier for the hardware. With Beckhoff’s fully integrated and long-term-available control platform, OEMs also have a clearer and easier migration path for next-generation controllers.

The TwinCAT/BSD alternative operating system (OS) and its Hypervisor make this consolidation possible for AGVs and AMRs, according to Gilbert Petersen, Intralogistics Industry Application Specialist for Beckhoff Automation LLC. TwinCAT/BSD offers greater application flexibility and the security of a modern UNIX-like OS while retaining the powerful automation capabilities of TwinCAT. Beckhoff has long supported third-party software being executed alongside TwinCAT projects on its control hardware, but previously only Windows-based programs. Once it was released, the TwinCAT/BSD environment also supported the execution of third-party software from the large FreeBSD repository of supported software. The Hypervisor extends this capability further by enabling virtual machines to run third-party software in Linux, Windows or other OS environments on the same controller.

JBT automated guided vehicle
AGVs are highly customizable to fill many requirements in todays warehousing and distribution operations.

“By implementing the Navitec software in a universal control architecture, we can add navigation to our standard functionality, even for advanced applications like having one AGV follow another,” Petersen explains. “A major strength of the Beckhoff solution is one controller can easily handle complex machine safety in addition to PLC and motion control, and now additionally the navigation.”

The integrated functional safety solution from Beckhoff, TwinSAFE, extends its wide-ranging benefits in this architecture. Graphical programming in TwinCAT 3 automation software simplifies implementation of both digital and analog safety solutions. As such, mobile robots can leverage safety devices like E-stops, safety scanners and light curtains, as well as solutions for safe position and safe velocity via TwinSAFE SC, single-channel safety for analog functions. TwinSAFE uses the TÜV-certified Fail Safe over EtherCAT (FSoE) protocol for black-channel communication over standard EtherCAT networks.

With EtherCAT, AGV makers benefit from the industrial Ethernet system’s high performance, built-in diagnostics and ability to interface with more than 30 common protocols, Petersen explains: “CANopen is widely used in mobile robots as a legacy technology, but EtherCAT is gaining market share due to its speed, high synchronization and ease of use. Another benefit of EtherCAT is simplified cabling with standard connectors. With CAN, engineers regularly have to add the communication to cable connectors with up to 36 wires, which creates noise issues and reduces baud rates from 500 kbit/s down to 125 or less. Of course, Beckhoff can still incorporate CANopen as well as RS232, EtherNet TCP/IP, EtherNet/IP, PROFINET or other protocols common to AGVs.”

Mobile robot companies keep moving forward

In the combined solution, the Beckhoff and Navitec systems communicate seamlessly between TwinCAT/BSD and Linux. A second virtual machine could run Windows to accommodate additional software. Still, only one machine controller is necessary, greatly reducing hardware footprint and extending the life cycle of the solution.

When Beckhoff and Navitec originally spoke about combining expertise, the full TwinCAT/BSD solution was not yet available. Realizing a complete AGV control solution in a single PLC or IPC had been our vision for several years. After first contacting Navitec, both companies agreed it would be a unique solution in the market that would be very attractive to end users and AGV OEMs alike, but at that time we were missing one critical piece of the solution.

AGV and AMR mobile robots from JBT
Benefits for mobile robots of all sizes: New systems from JR Automation were the first to deploy the combined Beckhoff-Navitec solution on a single controller using TwinCAT/BSD and its Hypervisor.

However, soon after Beckhoff released its Hypervisor in 2022, a large systems integrator looking to build AGVs reached out to Beckhoff and Navitec about combining the TwinCAT environment and navigation software on one controller. Experts from the three companies met together at the MODEX 2022 trade show in Atlanta to discuss the possibility. “From my first phone call with the customer to closing the deal took just 24 hours,” Otto says. “It was an incredibly fast sale because the combined Beckhoff-Navitec solution was so compelling.”

As mobile robot OEMs increase functionality, they can select from the scalable portfolio of Beckhoff machine controllers while maintaining the same system architecture including the same TwinCAT project since this single software is supported across all Beckhoff controllers. These include hardened, DIN rail-mounted embedded controllers and Industrial PCs (IPCs) with the latest processors from Intel and AMD. Extremely unique in the industry, Beckhoff designs and produces all the motherboards for the scalable portfolio of controllers, even owning the BIOS. This futureproof platform helps machine builders keep moving forward without any bumps in the road.

Tired of waiting to enhance the capabilities of your mobile robotics systems? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Navitec contact information

Matthias Otto

VP Global Sales

Navitec Systems Oy


Doug Schuchart is Global Material Handling & Intralogistics Manager for Beckhoff Automation.


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