Ocado is developing robot hands that won’t bruise bananas

The UK’s online supermarket, Ocado Ltd, has plans to test a new robotic arm for picking and packing groceries in some of its warehouses the company announced today. A grasping robot arm dexterous enough not to bruise bananas, crack eggs or fumble when it picks up a sack of citrus could allow e-groceries like Ocado to process a high volume of orders rapidly, without exhausting human workers or introducing lots of errors.

Why develop robots and not a factory system using claws, cranes and conveyor belts? Ocado CTO Paul Clarke said, “Robots are like a dog that you can teach new tricks. Whereas an arrangement of conveyors and what have you would be harder to change. They may do a job very well but it’s not an adaptable production line. If you want to change your offering you have to rip the whole thing out and start again.”

Ocado, already know for its use of technology in the food industry, has been working to develop sophisticated robotics in collaboration with five of Europe’s top tech universities and Disney Research in Zurich through the SoMa project, part of the Horizon 2020 research initiative funded by the European Union. (Clarke said Disney’s efforts in this project were focused more on using robotics at parks, and for entertainment, rather than picking and packing groceries.)

To manipulate different items without damaging them, Ocado’s new robotic arm uses a gripper that is anthropomorphic, or takes the form of the human hand. Dubbed the RBO Hand 2, this element has flexible rubber “fingers,” and uses pressurized air to move them and enable safe, gentle handling of groceries. Researchers at the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB) developed the soft robotic hand, originally. Other types of robotic grippers out there use suction to pick apples, or a ball filled with sand-like material to physically grasp metal parts.

Ocado has already been testing the robot hands in a replicated production warehouse, to figure out if they’re ready for real world use. The answer is now yes. Clarke tells TechCrunch, “We will begin to gradually deploy this at our Andover warehouse, where in due course, [the gripper] will start picking a meaningful fraction of the range of 48,500 items we ship out to customers.” The company will begin the roll out slowly, recording the results of tests in the real world environment. It will still be some time before Ocado customers get a back packed up by SoMa Ocado RBO Hands.

Ocado uses its own, grocery-specialized computer vision and machine learning, to enable the robot arm to see and find the right items to pack, then determine how they should be arranged, 3-dimensionally, in a tote before shipping.