Robotic Hands to Be Put to Work in Ocado’s Warehouse
Ocado expects its ‘live robotic picking lab’ to go into production later this year.
The online supermarket is set to start production on robotic hands technology it developed with the SOMA project, according to robotics research fellow at Ocado, Graham Deacon. Combined with Ocado’s in-house developed visions systems, the hands once fully developed will be put to work in the business’s warehouses handling goods.
Ocado’s tech takes a novel approach to robotic hands by using ‘soft hands’ that can easily adapt to the shape of the object, and leverage the physical constraints of the environment as opportunities to guide manipulation. Traditionally, robotic grasping and in-hand manipulation uses rigid hands and considers the object’s environment as an obstacle.
Speaking to Computing Deacon said: “We already have one device that’s going into production. This uses a simple suction cup on the end of it, but the clever bit is really the vision system. The way these systems typically work is that you need to have a model of the object the robotic arm is picking up in order to calculate the ‘grasp point’.
“Our system just needs to be able to detect in ‘the scene’ patches that are large enough and horizontal enough for the suction cup to work,” he said.
Deacon continued, “It characterises what needs to be seen in the scene for the suction cup to work, which means that we can be agnostic about what it is that we are trying to pick up.
“We’re still arranging how many things it can handle. We expect it to be able to handle a few thousand objects.
“Is it better than the way [a person would] pack? At the moment, the way that we operate, we give it an empty tote to start with. as the tote becomes more and more full, it becomes more challenging for the robot”.
First debuted in 2017, Ocado’s robotic hand was part-developed under the European Union SOMA – soft manipulation – project, in collaboration with the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB), German Aerospace Center, the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia and Università di Pisa in Italy, Institute of Science and Technology Austria and Disney Research Zurich.
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For the robot to function properly, its system must be combined with ‘vision systems’, such as the one developed by Ocado, together with the compute power to underpin the device’s decision making power. A spokesperson from Ocado told DIGIT the company expected the robotic hands will go into their production lines within three to five years.
Automated picking and packing of its customers’ orders is part of the company’s mid-term vision
Ocado’s news follows two weeks after Amazon unveiled its own newly developed robotic arms at its re:MARS (Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics and Space) event. However, Amazon’s offerings are not ready for practical usage yet.