Online supermarket Ocado tests robotic hand

Ocado is testing robotic hands in a simulated warehouse. Image courtesy of Ocado Technologies.
Ocado is testing robot hands in a simulated warehouse. Image courtesy of Ocado Technologies.

The world's largest online supermarket, Ocado, is testing the use of robotic hands for use in its grocery distribution warehouses.

These robotic hands are being tested for their ability to pick and sort a large number of different groceries prior to their delivery to customers.

The ‘hands’ are being built as part of the European Union’s SoMa project which is a collaboration between Technische Universität Berlin; Università di Pisa; Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia; Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. ; the Institute of Science and Technology Austria; Ocado Technology, and Disney Research Zurich.

While a large number of robotic arms can be used for grasping objects, they are mainly designed for heavy industry and thereforce lack the delicate touch needed for groceries. Many products, especially fruit and vegetables can be easily destroyed (or bruised) by an overly strong or imprecise robotic hand.

In order to solve that, the SoMa project looked for ways to build robotic hands which mimic the adaptability of human hands. Among the designs currently being tested by Ocado is the RBO Hand 2 which was developed by Technische Universität Berlin.

This device uses a rubber gripper powered by compressed air, in order to grip objects with a more delicate touch. Upon detecting the shape of an object, such as a piece of fruit, the RBO Hand 2 can adjust the positions of its fingers and thumb in order to lightly grasp it.

“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,” said Graham Deacon, Robotics Research Team Leader at Ocado.

“The adopted strategies attempted to exploit environmental constraints (e.g. the walls and the bottom of the tray) to perform the gripping tasks successfully.”

During these tests, the hand was attached two different kinds of robotic arms and put to work in a replicated warehouse environment. Currently, there is no word from Ocado on whether it believes the technology is mature enough for them to deploy these hands en masse across its real-world warehouses.