British online-only supermarket, Ocado, is trialing the use of robotic arms in its automated warehouses for the picking and packing of shopping orders.
The retailer released a video this week showing a soft robotic hand that can pick fruit and vegetables without damaging them, and announced plans to test the technology in more complex scenarios, with different objects, in the coming months.
Currently, Ocado’s human workforce selects fruit and veg for customer orders, but in future the robotic arm could replace them.
The trial is part of a collaborative research project called Soft Manipulation (SoMa), in which Ocado is a participant alongside academic institutions in Germany, Italy and Austria and the Disney Research lab in Zurich.
It is also the latest move by Ocado to adopt Internet of Things-based (IoT) technologies to improve efficiency in its warehouses and enhance the shopping experience for its customers.
However, writing in a company blog post, Ocado’s Robotics Research team leader, Graham Deacon, suggested that the handling of easily damaged goods, like fruit and veg, has long been the bane of robotic manipulation.
Ocado trials ‘hand-like gripper’
To avoid any damage, one solution developed by the Technische Universitat Berlin (TUB) is to fit the robotic arm with a compliant, hand-like gripper – the RBO Hand 2 – which is inflatable and possesses “spring-like properties”.
Ocado trialed TUB’s RBO Hand 2 on a set of artificial fruit stored in an IFCO (International Fruit Container) tray, with some success.
The company found that the prototype hand was able to effectively grasp objects of a variety of shapes without causing damage, and is sufficiently versatile to pick a wide variety of products, including over 48,000 hypermarket items in Ocado’s current range.
The emotional side to shopping
While the technology is still in the trial stage, former head of open innovation at Tesco Labs, Nick Lansley, told Internet of Business that, on the face of it, the ability to speed up the pick rates for online groceries might sound like a good idea, but he stressed that Ocado must not forget that shopping is an emotional decision.
“The picked items need to look clean, fresh and healthy. At my previous employer, Tesco.com, we programmed a big question that appeared on the picking screen whenever a personal shopper was picking a fruit & veg item: ‘Would I buy it?'”
The picker had to tap ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, according to Lansley, thereby taking responsibility for their choice of loose items on behalf of their customer.
“That emotional question focused the picker on searching for the best examples, even lifting away pallets to get to the newer produce underneath. This made a big difference to the perceived quality of fruit and vegetables received by the customers, who trusted us more as a result,” he said.
“So my question to Ocado is: Will your robot arm be programmed to pick ’emotionally’?”