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Ocado UK tests robotic arm for grocery packing

One of the biggest online-only supermarkets, Ocado, is testing a humanoid robot that helps to pick and pack orders in its warehouse. The UK based retailer has been working on robotic arms as a part of the SoMA Project, a research programme funded by the EU. Ocado Technology robotic team created a robotic arm that they call ‘SecondHands’ which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand human talking and has 3D vision ability.

The robotic arm can handle fragile and unpredictably shaped objects such as fruits and vegetables that could be easily smashed if handled by old-style robots. This has been the major challenge faced by Ocado Technology robotic team while developing the robotic arm. Thanks to RBO Hand 2, developed by the Technische Universität Berlin, the robotic arms were able to handle the fruits.

Graham Deacon, Ocado’s robotics research team leader said: “Initial results showed that the hand is able to successfully grasp a variety of shapes. The results suggested the chance of success increased when environmental constraints are being used effectively to restrict the movement of the object.”

The robotic arms use flexible rubber materials and pressurized air for passively adapting grasps for handling objects. Ocado handles around one million products at day at its warehouse and employs around 10,000 workers. The company expects robotic arms to get deployed in its warehouse from 2020. Matt Soane, general manager at Ocado Technology said that the robotic arms will not affect the employment of the workers as it only “assists the people working for them.”

“We have examples of where we have automated things and it enables our people working in the warehouse to potentially do more interesting things or get greater fulfillment out of what they are doing. So we don’t see automation as something that takes away jobs,” Mr Soane said.

However researchers expect automation to take over many of today’s jobs in the distant future. Recent studies revealed that 59 percent of manufacturing activities could be done using robots. Robots could easily do 90 percent of the things that a welder, cutter or a brazer does. 73 percent of activities in food service and accommodations could be automated.

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