Ocado, the online supermarket that is developing its own robotics technology in order to improve its efficiency, has revealed its new robot that, it claims, is capable of picking groceries in busy factory environments without squashing or damaging them.
Over the past few years, the company has invested significantly in research projects covering robotics and artificial intelligence, with the SecondHands technician robot being an example.
However, up until now, it's struggled to develop a system capable of picking and packing the 50,000 different items listed on Ocado. Robots need effective artificial intelligence technologies to do such tasks.
The company's latest robot uses a proprietary computer vision system developed by its internal team of researchers to allow it to choose from 50,000 different items available on the website.
This technology lets the robot work out grasping points for each product, avoiding the need for a 3D model of the object being picked. As a result, the robot can get to items much faster than other systems.
"In order for this process to run smoothly, the algorithm controlling the robot needed to have an understanding of where the crates were located and of the optimal grasp points of the items within the crate," explained the firm.
"This may sound simple, but developing the robot's understanding of its surroundings is very challenging.
There's also a vacuum cup attached to the end of the robot's articulated arm for gripping products. The arm is kitted out with a pipe that leads to an air compressor. It can lift almost any item, regardless of their shape.
As long as a product doesn't exceed the robot's weight restriction, the suction cup creates an airtight seal to ensure it's picked up and transported safely.
"We were keen to enter the production stage of our project, so the team developed the prototype using a 3D vision system that could identify the optimal grasp points that relate to picking one item at a time out of a full crate," said Ocado.
"The suction cup could then be lowered down to the designated grasping point to securely pick it up and transfer it to the delivery crate.
"Along the way, the system verifies that the item is the correct product, and determines the optimal orientation to rotate it to, before placing it into the bag.
The system has been designed to work in the company's picking stations, which are based throughout its already-automated fulfilment centres.
In these environments, there's an assembly line where crates are sent directly to a picking point. Here, there are robots to transfer items into delivery crates.
The company added: "Finally, the system also ensures that the items are only released if they can be placed without protruding from the delivery crate.
"The fact we found a way to bypass modelling our SKUs also meant that we could pick a greater range of items than many industrial picking systems.
"All in all, the system is streamlined and flexible, and our robotics team are very proud of the progress they have made so far."
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