Online supermarket group Ocado has demoed a robot arm that it claims is capable of safely grasping a wide variety of products such as eggs and apples without damaging them.
Ocado has been conducting research into robotics under the leadership of its chief technology officer Paul Clarke for a number of years. The development is part of a side-plan to develop automated warehousing technology that it can also licence to retailers overseas.
While robotic arms are nothing new, in the warehousing and retail sector - particularly in food and home-goods retailing - robotic arms need to have sufficient intelligence and a feedback mechanism in order to be able to safely handle a wide range of goods.
They also have to be able to pack a wide variety of disparate items in a manner that won't endanger the integrity of the items in transit, such as putting a two-kilo bag of potatoes on top of a dozen eggs.
The robotic arm comes as a result of collaboration between Ocado Technology, Ocado's technology development arm, and the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB), and represents an integral part of the SoMa project - a European Union-funded, Horizon 2020 programme for research into the field of "humanoid robotics".
"Ocado and its academic partners are developing some of the most innovative technologies in the field of robotics," said Dr Graham Deacon, robotics research team leader at Ocado Technology.
He continued: "With SoMa, we are pursuing a new direction for robotic grasping by developing robot hands that can safely pick easily damageable items, such as fruits and vegetables.
"The RBO Hand 2 designed by the Technische Universität Berlin offers a versatile, cost-effective and safe solution for robotic grasping and manipulation that integrates very well with Ocado's highly-automated warehouse retail solutions."
To avoid damaging sensitive and unpredictably shaped grocery items, the robotic arm uses the principle of "environmental constraint exploitation" to establish a carefully orchestrated interaction between the hand, the object being grasped, and the environment surrounding the respective items, claimed Deacon.
Ocado Technology is also a coordinator of the SecondHands project, another Horizon 2020-funded programme that aims to design a collaborative robot that can learn from, and offer assistance to, warehouse maintenance technicians in a proactive manner.
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