Ocado trials robotic picking hand

In other Ocado news, the grocer is trialling a ‘robotic hand’ that can pick and handle fruit and soft vegetables without damaging or bruising them.

According to Ocado this is being evaluated to see whether robotic systems can be used to pick and pack shopping orders in the online grocer’s already highly automated warehouses.

The robotic hands in question have been developed through the SoMa Project, a Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation that is funded by the EU.

SoMa is a collaborative research project between the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB), Università di Pisa, Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. (DLR), the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, Ocado Technology, and Disney Research Zurich.

Ocado say that fruit and vegetables can pose a challenge for robotic systems as they are not only easily damaged by rough hands but can also be ‘unpredictably shaped’.

Ocado commented: “To avoid damaging sensitive items, the project uses a compliant gripper (i.e. one that possesses spring-like properties) in conjunction with an industrial robot arm.

“The variation in shape of the target objects imposes another set of constraints on the design of a suitable gripper. The gripper must be sufficiently versatile to pick a wide variety of products, including Ocado’s current range which includes over 48,000 hypermarket items.”

TUB’s RBO Hand 2 gripper uses flexible rubber materials and pressurized air for passively adapting grasps which allows for safe and damage-free picking of objects.

“With seven individually controllable air chambers,” said Ocado, “the anthropomorphic design enables versatile grasping strategies.”

In order to test the RBO Hand 2’s performance, the Ocado Technology robotics team replicated a production warehouse scenario and mounted the soft hand on two different robot arms, a Staubli RX160L and a KUKA LBR iiwa14.

Ocado then designed a set of experiments to evaluate grasping performance on an example set of artificial fruit stored in an IFCO (International Fruit Container) tray.

The robotic hand apparently did well in the test. So, over the coming months Ocado plans “to explore more complex scenarios, adding more objects in the IFCO, and introducing additional environmental constraints that could be exploited by a grasping strategy”.

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