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Ocado: Working on robotic 'soft hands' that adapt to objects and surroundings

UK online supermarket Ocado wants to pick and pack every one of its 55,000 items that customers can order and has worked with the Horizon 2020-funded SOMA project to develop robotic 'soft hands'.

This means that robots might soon be packing up fruit and vegetable orders at Ocado after the online supermarket helped develop 'soft hands' that can adapt to the shape of fragile objects to handle them without the risk of damage.

The technology is the result of four years of research conducted by the Horizon 2020-funded SOMA (Soft Manipulation) consortium of researchers, academics, and scientists. Ocado provided the team with a use case for testing their robotic manipulation capabilities, which the supermarket believed could end up on its production lines.

Ocado aims to eventually pick up and pack all of the 55,000 products on its shelves. It will soon launch a system that uses a suction cup to handle more durable objects, but the system will struggle to handle more sensitive and unpredictable items.

"When it comes to classes of objects like fruit and vegetables, we could see that we were going to struggle to find anything that was an off-the-shelf solution, the reason being that with these kinds of items they're never the same shape twice," Dr Graham Deacon, Robotics Research Team Leader at Ocado Technology, told Computerworld UK.

The SOMA consortium took a different approach. Instead of avoiding an object's surroundings, the researchers used the principle of "environmental constraint exploitation" to create an orchestrated interaction between the robot, the object, and the environment, a method inspired by the way humans use their hands.

Ocado aims to add SOMA to its production lines in three to five years but will first explore whether it could benefit from further capabilities.


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