Robotics

Ocado’s caterpillar-fingered robot will soon be picking your veg

By Oliver Smith 31 January 2017
Summary

The online grocer just made a logistical breakthrough.

Ocado has cracked one of the final hurdles in robotics, creating an artificial hand to pack your shopping.

There are many things robots can do, from building cars to driving them, but robots have struggled with some of the basics – like picking delicate things up without breaking them – until now.

We took a look around Ocado’s warehouses earlier this year – pointing out that actually picking up food, whether a bunch of bananas or pot of yoghurt, is surprisingly challenging and still eludes Ocado’s robotic efforts.

Read more: Ocado’s vast robotic warehouses are crazily cool – take a tour

After more than two years of researching robotic arms for its automated warehouses, Ocado believes it may be upon a breakthrough.

“One of the main challenges related to grocery picking has been the handling of easily damageable and unpredictably shaped objects such as fruits, vegetables or eggs,” an Ocado spokesperson explained.

“Since these products have unique shapes and mechanical properties, they have historically been susceptible to damaging or bruising when handled by robots.”

You’ve got to hand it to them

But by partnering with two Berlin-based robotics projects, SoMa and RBO Hand 2 at the Technical University of Berlin, Ocado believes it has achieved a breakthrough.

“We have built a fully functioning robotic arm that is able to successfully grasp a variety of grocery products typically found in an Ocado warehouse.”

So far the arm can be seen picking up apples and bags of limes using its caterpillar-like fingers, but Ocado says it’s starting to test the arm in increasingly complex scenarios, placing multiple objects in the trays it uses and teaching the hand to grasp them.

The good and the bad

If Ocado’s innovation is successful, robot hands might ring an end to the trend of warehouse workers for retailers like ASOS and Amazon having to cope with some of the worst working conditions in the UK.

But if these workers are totally replaced by robots, this might just be the start of a whole set of new societal problems.

Ocado has always been ahead of the curve, it was the first grocer to launch an iPhone app in 2009, an Android app in 2010 and an Apple Watch app in 2015.

Now, with over 1,000 robots already helping to pack bags in Ocado’s biggest UK warehouse, it could be the first grocer to use only robotic hands to pick and pack your groceries.

Sadly Ocado’s one-handed robots won’t be able to give a round of applause.