Ocado Works With EU Universities To Create Soft Touch Robotic Arm

The online grocery giant is looking to further push its automation agenda

Ocado Technology its tapping into the collaborative research power of several universities to create a robotic arm that can safely pick up groceries without crushing them in a vice-like grip.

As part of its vision to bring around highly-automated warehouses through the use of robots to pick and package products ordered online, Ocado’s technology arm is created the Soft Manipulation (SoMa) project.

The project involves working with a clutch of robotics researchers from European univeristis;  the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB), Università di Pisa, Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. (DLR), the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, and Disney Research Zurich.

Arming Ocado’s robotic research

Ocado SoMa robot 2The goal of the SoMa project is to solve the problem of robotic manipulation being too rough with grociries such as fruit, which bruises and damages easily under heavy handling. The human hand is packed with nerves that act as massively complex sensors that allow us to seamlessly modulate the way we touch and handle objects. Replicating that with robotics is no such an easy task.

So far the SoMa project is tracking this problem with the use of a compliant hand-like gripper that possesses spring-like properties. This was demonstrated in a video where the hand grips an Apple in a fashion so that almost envelops the fruit rather than grasp at it at certain points, thereby reducing the pressure applied to the fruit’s surface.

Dubbed the RBO Hand 2, Graham Deacon, robotics research team leader at Ocado Technology, said the gripper is being put to the test in Ocado’s warehouses: “The Ocado Technology robotics team replicated a production warehouse scenario in order to evaluate the performance of the RBO Hand 2 for Ocado’s use case.”

“The team mounted the soft hand on two different robot arms, a Staubli RX160L and a KUKA LBR iiwa14. Both of these arms can operate in the standard position controlled mode; in addition to this, the KUKA provides the capability of demonstrating a certain amount of software controlled compliance in the arm.”

And according to Deacon, the testing appears to be yielding some success: “We designed a set of experiments to evaluate grasping performance on an example set of artificial fruit stored in an IFCO (International Fruit Container) tray. The adopted strategies attempted to exploit environmental constraints (e.g. the walls and the bottom of the tray) to perform the gripping tasks successfully.”

“The experiments started with the simple scenario of grasping a single object from the example set using only the bottom of the tray. Initial results showed that the hand is able to successfully grasp a variety of shapes and the results suggested the chance of success increased when environmental constraints are being used effectively to restrict the movement of the object,” he explained.

With the continued development of driverless cars, the introduction of virtual assistants into coffee-ordering apps, and Ocado’s continued push with automation technology, it would appear that smart software and robotics are going to become part of everyday life, whether we notice and like it or not.

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