Online supermarket unveils robot to lend a hand at warehouses

The online supermarket Ocado plans to wheel out Star Wars-style C-3PO humanoid robots known as SecondHands to pass spanners and move ladders for technicians.


The online supermarket plans to wheel out Star Wars-style C-3PO humanoid robots – image courtesy of Ocado.

The ‘SecondHands’ robot will pass spanners and move ladders to workers using artificial intelligence and speech recognition.

Ocado has already built a prototype, marking the latest move from the online grocery specialist to cut its reliance on human workers.

The SecondHands prototype resembles Star Wars Android C-3PO, but with wheels at its base instead of legs. It is designed to assist human engineers looking after Ocado’s handling systems using AI to predict workers’ needs.

The robot listens to commands and interprets human reactions to decide how to help in different situations; workers can call out instructions, such as ‘pick up that spanner’ or ‘hold this for me’, and the robot responds with the appropriate action.

According to Ocado, the machine ‘learns through observation’ to take on jobs that require a level of precision or strength unmatched by human workers.

An Ocado spokesperson told MailOnline that the android’s development will complete in 2020, with the project’s £6.2m cost provided by an EU funding board. SecondHands robots could be installed into Ocado warehouses as early as 2025, the spokesperson said.

The robot and its operational software, including speech recognition, were developed at the Institute for Anthropomatics and Robotics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), in southern Germany.

Ocado is also working with researchers at University College London, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and Sapienza University in Rome on systems that can recognise and interpret human actions and decide how to help.

Graham Deacon, robotics research leader at Ocado, said the company’s aim is to develop an autonomous robot that can help in ‘a fluid and natural interaction between robot and technician’.