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Robot gripper with a gentle touch

30 June 2015

Online retailer Ocado is working on a robotic gripper that will attempt to gently grasp soft food.

This is a major stumbling block to the use of robotic picking in the grocery sector, as items vary in strength and texture and it is difficult to gently grip items quickly.

The Horizon 2020 project: ΣΩMA (pronounced SOMA) will sees Ocado partner with a number of universities to explore new ways for robots to physically interact with their environment. It is hoped this will create a ground-breaking robotic hand which can be used in conjunction with SecondHands - a humanoid robot being developed separately.

Emulating a human hand, the robotic gripper will know when to grasp softly - such as when picking an apple - or to grip more tightly, such as when lifting a bottle of water.

Under the SecondHands project, Ocado is coordinating a consortium of universities to create an autonomous robot, which will be used initially for difficult maintenance jobs.

It will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced vision systems to understand what human workers want and offer assistance. For example, it will hand tools to human maintenance technicians and manipulate objects like ladders, pneumatic cylinders and bolts, abilities which cannot be found in any commercial robot. The objective is to increase safety, efficiency and productivity in the workplace.

"The ultimate aim is for humans to end up relying on collaborative robots because they have become an active participant in their daily tasks,” explained Dr Graham Deacon, robotics research team leader at Ocado Technology. "In essence the SecondHands robot will know what to do, when to do it and how to do it in a manner that a human can depend on.”

The initiative, which will span five years, and is expected to use seventy two person years (equivalent to 855 person months) of research effort to complete, aims to break new ground in robotics.

Key areas of focus, include:

Proactive assistance: the robot developed under the SecondHands project will have cognitive and perceptive ability to understand when the operator is in need of help, understand how this help can be given and provide relevant assistance.

Artificial intelligence: The team will enable the robot to progressively acquire skills and knowledge needed to provide assistance. In fact, it will even anticipate the needs of the maintenance technician and execute the appropriate tasks without prompting.

3D perception: Advanced 3D vision systems will allow the robot to estimate the 3D articulated pose of humans and offer support when it is needed without being asked.

Humanoid form and flexibility: A humanoid shape and human-like flexibility will enable natural collaboration between humans and the robot. It will feature an active sensor head, two redundant torque controlled arms, two anthropomorphic hands, bendable and extendable torso and a wheeled mobile platform.

The SecondHands project, so-called because the robot will literally provide a second pair of hands to human workers, is part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme, which includes one of the world’s largest civilian robotics programs.

As coordinator of the project, Ocado Technology will work alongside University College London, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, La Sapienza University of Rome and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. The technology firm, which powers Ocado.com, will build a special testing facility in Hatfield where the robot will be subjected to rigorous real-world trials.