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Ocado, the world’s largest online-only supermarket, has been evaluating the feasibility of robotic picking and packing of shopping orders in its highly-automated warehouses through the SoMa project, a Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation funded by the European Union.

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.

One of the main challenges of robotic manipulation has been the handling of easily damageable and unpredictably shaped objects such as fruit and vegetable groceries. These products have unique shapes and should be handled in a way that does not cause damage or bruising. 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.

How RBO softhand could help address these challenges

The SoMa project (EU Horizon 2020 GA 645599) aims to design compliant robotic hands that are suitable for handling fragile objects without much detailed knowledge of an item’s shape; in addition, the robotic arms should also be capable of exploiting environmental constraints (physical constraints imposed by the environment). The goal is to develop versatile, robust, cost-effective, and safe robotic grasping and manipulation capabilities.

An example of a compliant gripper is the RBO Hand 2 developed by the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB). The 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, the anthropomorphic design enables versatile grasping strategies.

Due to its compliant design, the robotic hand is highly under-actuated: only the air pressure is controlled, while the fingers, palm, and thumb adjust their shape to the given object geometry (morphological computation). This simplifies control and enables effective exploitation of the environment.

Integrating the RBO Hand 2 with an industrial manipulator and testing with a standard object set

The Ocado Technology robotics team replicated a production warehouse scenario in order to evaluate the performance of the RBO Hand 2 for Ocado’s use case. The team mounted the soft hand on two different robot arms, a Staubli RX160L and a KUKA LBR iiwa14. Both of these arms can operate in the standard position controlled mode; in addition to this, the KUKA provides the capability of demonstrating a certain amount of software controlled compliance in the arm.

KUKA robotic arm

We 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 adopted strategies attempted to exploit environmental constraints (e.g. the walls and the bottom of the tray) to perform the gripping tasks successfully,.

RBO robotic arm

The experiments started with the simple scenario of grasping a single object from the example set using only the bottom of the tray. Initial results showed that the hand is able to successfully grasp a variety of shapes and the results suggested the chance of success increased when environmental constraints are being used effectively to restrict the movement of the object.

In the coming months, we plan to explore more complex scenarios, adding more objects in the IFCO, and introducing additional environmental constraints that could be exploited by a grasping strategy.

Graham Deacon, Robotics Research Team Leader

January 31st, 2017

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World’s largest online-only grocery retailer working with prestigious universities in Europe to develop innovative robotic solutions

Today Ocado Technology is announcing a major development in the pursuit of creating robotic grocery picking solutions for Ocado’s highly-automated warehouses. The Ocado Technology robotics team has created a robotic arm capable of safely grasping a wide variety of products, including many from Ocado’s current range which includes over 48,000 hypermarket items.

The robotic arm comes as a result of the close collaboration between Ocado Technology and the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB), and represents an integral part of the SoMa project – a European Union-funded, Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation in the field of humanoid robotics.

The SoMa project also includes researchers, academics and scientists from the University of Pisa, the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR, the German aerospace agency), the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, and Disney Research Zürich.

Ocado and its academic partners are developing some of the most innovative technologies in the field of robotics. With SoMa, we are pursuing a new direction for robotic grasping by developing robot hands that can safely pick easily damageable items such as fruits and vegetables. The RBO Hand 2 designed by the Technische Universität Berlin offers a versatile, cost-effective and safe solution for robotic grasping and manipulation that integrates very well with Ocado’s highly-automated warehouse retail solutions. – Dr. Graham Deacon, robotics research team leader at Ocado Technology

To avoid damaging sensitive and unpredictably shaped grocery items, the robotic arm uses the principle of environmental constraint exploitation to establish a carefully orchestrated interaction between the hand, the object being grasped, and the environment surrounding the respective item.

The SoMa project is part of a continuum of robotics and engineering R&D projects in development at Ocado. In December 2016, Ocado commenced operations from its highly automated Andover warehouse which includes hundreds of robots swarming on a grid the size of several football pitches. In addition, Ocado Technology is a coordinator of the SecondHands project, another Horizon 2020-funded programme that aims to design a collaborative robot that can learn from and offer assistance to warehouse maintenance technicians in a proactive manner.

For more information about the SoMa robotic arm, please visit our blog.

About Ocado Technology
Ocado Technology is a division of Ocado developing world-class systems and solutions in the areas of robotics, machine learning, simulation, data science, forecasting and routing, inference engines, big data, real-time control, and more. The fusion between the Ocado retail and Ocado Technology divisions creates a virtuous circle of innovation that leads to disruptive thinking. For more information about Ocado Technology, visit www.ocadotechnology.com

About Ocado
Established in 2000, Ocado is a UK-based company admitted to trading on the London Stock Exchange (OCDO), and is the world’s largest dedicated online grocery retailer, operating its own grocery and general merchandise retail businesses under the Ocado.com and other specialist shop banners. For more information about the Ocado Group, visit www.ocadogroup.com

January 31st, 2017

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Bot photo on the grid

When we were building the hardware architecture of the new warehouse in Andover, we realised we had developed a world first in radio design.

The new warehouse solution designed for our next generation of CFCs has thrown up lots of interesting technical challenges along the way. One of the first was how to communicate with over 10,000 robots concurrently.

More specifically, how do we get timely information on the locations of thousands of robots so we can efficiently control them? The answer lies in our unending striving for new and novel solutions to technical challenges.

Here is the story of how we taught robots to talk over 4G – and created a number of world firsts in the process.

Why Wi-Fi was a no-go

We started this project by studying the properties of Wi-Fi. The standard Wi-Fi network uses a distributed coordination function which is not a deterministic means of guaranteeing latency. The analogy often used is polite conversation at a dinner party: it is easy to have one single conversation at a table of two, much harder once you get to 12. Now imagine a state banquet; not everyone will have a chance to share their important information. There is provision in the standard for a point coordination function but nothing available on the open market supported this feature.

There is also the issue of scale, as most Wi-Fi access points (APs) can support a maximum of somewhere between 64 and 256 concurrent clients. Consider that we need to communicate with swarms of thousands of robots, talking to each ten times a second and with guaranteed latency. We needed to understand what this meant for the network design as well as how to accommodate it in an already busy spectrum plan.

Through our experience of existing systems, we knew we should enable a maximum of around 80 clients per AP and reduce the cell size to a very small area. This is similar to the approaches taken in high density deployments such as sports stadiums and auditoriums. However, unlike in those areas, the clients would be constantly moving and using the Wi-Fi network as their primary activity, rather than watching the sports game or concert. There is relatively little headroom above the bots, providing a further driver for many small cells.

Roaming would be required between the Wi-Fi APs – this is notoriously unpredictable. The best results we see in the real world are around 300ms, which would impact the command and control of traffic.

Another aspect to consider is that this approach would require complex planning and installation work for each warehouse, which would be expensive and difficult to maintain.

Ultimately, we found that Wi-Fi’s non deterministic performance would hinder our ability to develop an efficient real time control algorithm for the bots. Resolving this problem was therefore critical to the success of the overall project.

Working with Cambridge Consultants

We had a few ideas for solutions, but wanted to get a fresh perspective on the problem. Cambridge Consultants with their world class RF (radio frequency) and DSP (digital signal processing) skills were the obvious choice.

They also have the know-how and complete range of equipment onsite to manufacture small batches of the final product; in fact we learned a great deal from them about electronics manufacturing.

Base station image

The partnership has proven to be very successful because we produced a fully featured prototype within two years (it usually takes three to five). In addition (and maybe quite surprisingly to some), the initial system architecture we defined at the very start of the project remains unchanged.

The solution

The system we came up with takes advantage of modern wireless communication principles but has secret ingredients that tailors it to our environment. For example, it works in license-free spectrum so we can deploy it at a moment’s notice.

In fact, it’s the first deployment anywhere in the world to use the unlicensed 4G spectrum for warehouse automation. By making the system private, we were able to improve the performance and simplify overall complexity by minimising handshake and eliminating roaming aspects. The system guarantees a connection ten times a second to each of the 1,000 client hosts per base station – all working within a 150-metre radius.

Bot CAD

Like all extremely low-latency, real-time systems, we also needed to include features to provide redundancy. The devices have physical attributes such as dual network and power links and also logical tools to enable failover to hot standby units; this has enabled us to upgrade the base station firmware without impacting its operation. These tools also enable us to automatically recover from network and power outages, which has been invaluable during site commissioning tests.

Through this project, we’ve also bought Precision Time Protocol into the business; one benefit is that it enables very tightly synchronised log capture across multiple machines, which was beneficial during the development of the system.

Where next?

Building and deploying this system from the drawing board in only three years was impressive in anyone’s book but we haven’t finished yet. By designing this system ourselves, we’re free to alter and add features as we see fit. Soon we’ll be analysing how alternate MAC layers could help improve warehouse efficiency and designing a custom roaming algorithm optimized for our specific application.

This is only one of several wireless projects that are defining new applications for wireless technology – with OSP, we need to expand our capabilities in the RF domain. We’re recruiting!

Right now we’re looking for two team leads: one for traditional Wi-Fi, RFID and Two Way Radio systems and another person to oversee our Internet of Things applications team, which includes this technology. In addition, we’re hiring two wireless engineers for testing and product development.

Because there are many alternative applications for our scalable solution – factories, construction sites, airfields etc – our next task is to create a demonstration system to show off the technology to interested businesses.

Strategically, there are a number of areas we can improve to make the system work even harder, for example: miniaturisation, increased processing power, and beyond. It’s not in our nature to just say job done and stop innovating, and I’m excited to see where we can take the system next.

Adam Green, Principal Wireless Engineer

November 24th, 2016

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The e-commerce market has been the growth engine of the retail environment, experiencing a 15% increase for grocery sales in 2015. One of the major challenges facing retailers is the ability to keep up with the fast growing demand coming from the online channels. This creates additional pressure on retail warehouses to find more qualified staff, whether for picking and delivering orders or for maintaining and expanding the existing warehousing infrastructure in a scalable way.

However, a recent GOV.UK survey showed that a growing number of jobs are being left unfilled because companies can’t find the right people with the appropriate skills. In addition, UK productivity on the whole has flatlined since 2008, a concerning trend given how other countries have dramatically improved theirs.

One solution to the challenges presented above is the adoption of robots working alongside human workers inside the warehouse to boost productivity, satisfy customer demand for fast delivery times, and reduce picking times. In the UK, Ocado has been a pioneer in the use of robotics and automation alongside its human workforce.

SecondHands

We are a net employer of 11,000 staff, but also create advanced hardware systems that help us maintain a very efficient operation. This in turn enables us to provide additional jobs and other employment opportunities, none of which would be possible without the technology we’ve developed.

SecondHands and SoMa

Ocado Technology has been one of the first companies to realize the positive impact of advanced robotics in the e-commerce market. In addition to creating a hive system for our Ocado Smart Platform, we’ve also partnered with several universities on two robotics-related projects funded by the European Union: SecondHands and SoMa.

The SecondHands project is interesting not only from the perspective of what we will learn along the way, but also because we plan to build many highly automated CFCs worldwide (for Ocado and its OSP customers). Therefore, the SecondHands robots would help us maintain the CFCs, and ultimately help automate their construction too.

While SecondHands focuses on designing a robot assistant for industrial maintenance tasks, SoMa is exploring the utility of strategies that embody a soft manipulation approach. Typically this entails using a robotic hand that exhibits controllable compliant (i.e. spring-like) behaviour.

Given that Ocado offers over 48,000 different items on our store that vary in size, shape, weight and span from rigid to highly deformable, the SoMa robotics teams must solve many unique challenges in addition to the classical robotic manipulator problems.

Image of a robotic arm

Recently, the team has been working on a benchmark framework for the evaluation of soft manipulation systems used for commercial purposes. The framework takes into account several key attributes and assumptions, including the asymmetric and deformable nature of the item to be picked and the damage-free handling of the product or packaging.

Performance-wise, a successful grasp in the Ocado use case refers to robustness (i.e. a secure and reliable grasp), a low level of damage or bruising observed, and a short pick-and-place cycle time.

The benchmark framework was recently presented at a workshop (part of the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems held in South Korea) to a large audience of robotics experts from around the world.

Image of robot grasping oranges

The presentation was titled “Systematic evaluation of compliant under-actuated soft manipulators in an industrial context – the Ocado use case” and included a description of the software and hardware setup being used to test several hypotheses concerning the efficacy of various pre- and post-grasping strategies employed with robot hands that are consistent with the soft manipulation paradigm.

If you’d like to know more about SoMa, visit the project’s website and follow the team on Twitter.

Alex Voica, Technology Communications Manager

October 26th, 2016

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Globe of food

Although several analysts have recently downplayed their predictions for the consumer side of the Internet of Things market, IoT adoption in the enterprise segment is currently experiencing a boom.

One of the areas where IoT is set to make a huge impact is the online grocery retail sector. This comes at a time when more consumers are starting to understand the benefits of shopping online.

 

For example, Ocado has an active customer base that counts over 500,000 users; in addition, we’ve noticed that customers tend to stay loyal to Ocado over time thanks to a combination of great customer service and an easy-to-use shopping platform.

However, we believe there are several areas where IoT is helping us improve efficiency, reduce waste, and enhance the shopping experience for our customers. The two examples mentioned below illustrate some of the projects we’re actively working on and the initial results we’ve achieved thanks to the amazing team of engineers working at Ocado Technology.

Warehouse robots communicating over 4G

The Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) represents the most important breakthrough in online grocery retail. One of the many innovations implemented by the OSP is the use of robots for collecting customers’ groceries; you can find a diagram of how that works below:

Image of the hive

To make such a complex system of software and hardware function correctly, we needed a new kind of communications protocol to enable thousands of robots to rapidly communicate over a wireless network. We’ve therefore partnered with Cambridge Consultants to build a wireless system like no other.

This new network is based on the same underlying technology that connects your 4G mobile phone to the internet but operates in a different spectrum that allows thousands of machines to talk to each other at the same time. Each robot integrates a radio chip that connects to a base station capable of handling over 1,000 requests at a time. A typical grocery warehouse can thus use up to 20 base stations to create a small army of connected robots on a mission to ensure that your delivery gets picked in a record time of less than five minutes.

Moreover, since this system uses an unlicensed part of the radio spectrum, it could potentially be deployed for many other IoT applications that require low latency communications between thousands of devices. In addition, it can be deployed quickly too, as there’s no need to submit any form of paperwork related to standards compliance.

Equipping delivery vans with IoT sensors

We employ a large fleet of vans to deliver orders from Customer Fulfilment Centres (CFCs) to Ocado customers who purchase their groceries online. In order to manage this fleet efficiently, we equipped our delivery vans with a range of IoT sensors logging valuable information such as the vehicle’s location, wheel speed, engine revs, braking, fuel consumption, and cornering speed.

Vans at our Park Royal spoke

The vans then stream back this data in real time and also in greater granularity when they return to their CFCs. Ocado engineers then feed the data into our routing systems so the routes we drive tomorrow will hopefully be even better than the ones we drove today. We can also direct vans to park at the best possible location for a given time of day and take into account factors such as the current day of the week or school holidays.

At a time when inner city pollution is a growing health concern, reducing fuel consumption is not only a wise business decision but also an easy way to cut back on our carbon footprint. Furthermore, having a fleet of connected vehicles that is constantly exploring every corner of the UK enables us to gather lots of useful mapping information, including potential traffic jams and road closures.

This information could then be shared with other connected cars and help drivers manage their journeys more effectively. An example of such an initiative is the recent partnership between Mobileye, GM, Volkswagen and Nissan to create a set of crowdsourced maps that acts as the digital infrastructure for the self-driving cars of the future.

Alex Voica, Technology Communications Manager

September 22nd, 2016

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Paul at the meetup

Last week Ocado Technology had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the Data Science Festival organised at Google’s London headquarters in Soho. I was very lucky to be among the 200+ participants in the audience and would like to share with you a few insights from the Data Science Festival meetup as well as some information about how Ocado Technology uses machine learning to improve customer service and the overall efficiency of our Customer Fulfilment Centres (CFCs).

The meetup began with an introduction from Binesh Lad, head of retail for Google Cloud Platform UK & Ireland at Google. He talked briefly about how Google is rapidly expanding its cloud offering, offering Coca Cola, Best Buy, CCP Games (makers of EVE Online) and others as examples of customers using the Google Cloud Platform.

Binesh then jokingly played a video that introduced Google’s new, very exciting and definitely real product: the Actual Cloud (an April Fool’s prank that went viral a few months ago).

The second speaker of the evening was Paul Clarke, CTO at Ocado Technology. Paul offered a few quick facts about Ocado and how we have made online grocery shopping a reality over the last decade.

He then gave a few examples of how IoT, robotics and machine learning can be used together to improve the efficiency of warehouse operations and route optimisation for vans. Everyone in the audience was blown away by a sequence of short clips showing robots roaming around our new automation-based CFC in Andover, a real-time visualisation of the CFC in Dordon, and a live map of the vans delivering orders to Ocado customers in the UK.

Slide on screen of the new warehouse grid

Paul then moved to the second part of his presentation where he outlined how IoT is an unstoppable force that will usher in the true democratisation of hardware and software. Ocado Technology is already working on several IoT-related projects and is constantly adopting new ways of thinking into its product development cycles based on the innovation that is spurring in the IoT community.

Closing the evening off was Marcin Druzkowski, senior software engineer at Ocado Technology.

Marcin offered his perspective on data science and how Ocado is applying software engineering principles like code versioning, code testing and review, and continuous improvement to machine learning.

Marcin on stage

He also provided some useful tips for TensorFlow developers and outlined tools such as Git, Docker, Jupyter used by his team when dealing with data science. Finally, Marcin offered an example of how Ocado Technology is using data science to analyze customer emails and improve its customer service by using machine learning.

Marcin presenting a slide on TensorFlow

After the event was over, I had the opportunity to chat with some of the people in the audience over beers and (free!) pizza. Many said it was definitely an amazing presentation (a few said it was one of the best data science meetups they’ve attended so far!) and were very excited to learn that Ocado Technology is a pioneer in machine learning and data science.

Alex Voica, Technology Communications Manager

 

September 1st, 2016

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Alex speaking on stage

Earlier this month I took part in a panel discussion on robotics at Stuff Innovators 2015.

I shared the stage with Patrick Levy Rosenthal CEO of EmoShape, they produce a microchip for robots aimed at producing emotional responses, and Nicolas Boudot from Aldebaran, the company that developed a companion robot called Pepper (seen in the picture above).

Initially I was asked about robotics at Ocado and why there was a need, so I talked about Ocado being much more than a webshop with some delivery vans. I explained our CFCs and the over 700 technologists needed to develop such sophisticated systems, and that part of this work revolves around robotics, the difficulties in picking the entire 45,000 SKU range, and in the design, construction and maintenance of the automation.

The questions and discussion were really aimed at identifying the key challenge when developing robots that interact with people in an intuitive manner. All the panel agreed in pinpointing AI.

Learning knowledge is currently beyond state-of the-art, and the challenges with the physical elements of the robots are being improved all the time, but the required AI to allow robots to exhibit even a basic set of skills with a degree of competence needed for really intuitive human interaction is the most significant challenge.

We then discussed whether humans have anything to fear from the rise of robots. The panel agreed not for the foreseeable future, and not until there is some radical change in state-of-the-art AI.

The Ocado Technology view was that robots will be employed to assist the human workforce and to reduce the environmental challenges they face (for example lifting heavy, awkward SKUs like packs of bottled water ot cat litter). Also, that the customer might see many potential improvements as a result, such as: better quality (pick to tessellation algorithm); shorter delivery windows; reduced minimum order sizes.

At the end, the chair asked us how long it would be before the types of robots we see on screen (Ex-Machina, Humans etc) will be available to buy. Again the panel was unanimous: not within the next ten years. However, Nicolas thought it would be commonplace to have less intelligent robots sooner than that.

While at the conference I listened to a panel discussing wearables, and while the majority of the discussion was very much focused on the consumer side (smartwatches and health/fitness apps), the representative from Intel alluded to some industrial wearables they were involved in that were really interesting to us. Take a look:

      • Vuzix produces smart glasses for commercial/warehouse use, they had a 30% investment from Intel in 2015
      • Munich-based, Intel partner Workaround UG (set up by ex-BMW employees) produces the ProGlove, an intelligent glove that uses chips to power a simple display on the wrist telling the person wearing it whether they completed the assembly task correctly. Here’s a company demo of it:

 

Alex Harvey, Head of Reseach and Project Management

November 11th, 2015

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Matt Whelan

My team builds simulations of physical systems. Our work falls into 3 categories: experimental, tactical, and operational.

At the experimental end, we build simulations and design tools for new technologies and warehouse layouts, along with prototype control algorithms.

Tactically, we try out proposed changes to our warehouse topologies in silico and perform ROI analysis. We create and mine large data sets so we can spot and remove risk from our growth strategy.

Operationally, we pipe streams of production data into 3D visualisations, originally developed for playing back simulations, allowing real-time monitoring of our live control systems.

We get to work on some pretty bold conceptual projects because, when working at such a massive scale (last year our operation turned over £1billion), even seemingly small percentage efficiency savings mean serious money to the business.

I read a lot about how the more theoretical aspects of computing – things that interested me in the subject in the first place – aren’t as important in the ‘real world’ of enterprise software development. There are big players in all kinds of industries getting left behind because they shy away from AI, robotics, and large scale automation. I think we’re really lucky that we get to spend our time creating novel path searches, travelling salesman solvers, discrete optimisers and the like, and it gives us an edge over our competitors in a fierce market.

The team is a real mixed bag of interests and hobbies. We have a physics doctor, a swing dancer, and a gaming software expert for starters. One thing we all have in common is that we’re unfazed by scale – an attitude which pervades Ocado Technology – and all looking to be the person with the big idea.

The beauty of the environment we’re in is that we can prove how big that idea is before millions are spent on building it.

If that sounds like a team you want to be a part of, these are the positions we’re recruiting for now:

Full Stack Django/Celery Software Engineer

Java Software Engineer (SE2) – Simulation

Senior Java Software Engineer – Simulation

Matt Whelan, Simulation Research Team Leader

September 16th, 2015

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SecondHands

Recently we kicked off an exciting project to develop an autonomous humanoid robot. It will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced vision systems to understand what human workers want, in order to offer assistance.

For example, it will be able to hand tools to maintenance technicians, and manipulate objects like ladders, pneumatic cylinders and bolts.

The ultimate aim is for humans to end up relying on collaborative robots because they have become an active participant in their daily tasks. In essence, the robot will know what to do, when to do it, and do it in a manner that a human can depend on.

The project is called SecondHands as it will literally provide a second pair of hands, and is part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme. We are leading the research, working with four other European institutions.

The tasks our robot will carry out will increase safety and efficiency, and require us to focus on key areas of robotics including:

Proactive assistance – the robot will have cognitive and perceptive ability to understand when and what help its operator needs, and then to provide it.

Artificial intelligence – to anticipate the needs of its operator and execute tasks without prompting, the robot will need to progressively acquire skills and knowledge.

3D perception – advanced 3D vision systems will allow the robot to estimate the 3D articulated pose of humans.

Humanoid form and flexibility – SecondHands will feature an active sensor head, two redundant torque controlled arms, two anthropomorphic hands, a bendable and extendable torso, and a wheeled mobile platform.

For more information, see the project’s website.

Dr Graham Deacon

Robotics Research Team Leader

UPDATE: If you think that sounds interesting, we’re looking for a talented Robotics Research Software Engineer to join the team. Take a look at the role now.

July 1st, 2015

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Pisa/IIT SoftHand

I’m very excited about a new wave of robot development known as soft robotics (technical name: variable stiffness actuators), so when I saw there was a training course happening in Rome in February, I knew I had to go.

Actuators, or motors, are the muscles of the robot – the mechanical parts that create movement. Traditionally, motors (and robots) have been large, heavy, precise and rigid. So rigid and strong that you can’t move them when the power is off. New hardware called ‘series elastic actuators’ is changing that.

The first commercial product using series elastic actuators is a dual manipulator called Baxter from Rethink Robotics. This robot is designed to be safe.

Sawyer robot

Sawyer robot courtesy of Rethink Robotics

It’s much lighter than industrial robot arms and moves slowly, so it won’t hurt you if you bump into it. More importantly, the motors themselves incorporate sensors to detect the contact. Robots designed for sensing contacts and to be safe are often called ‘collaborative robots’, and they promise to revolutionise the adoption of robotics in industry.

In industry, robots production cells are traditionally designed with a fixed robot and a fixed environment, and the cell layout is locked up and protected. This means nobody can move around and place an unexpected object in the robot environment or bump into the robot while it’s moving. Like here:

Tesla autobots

Tesla Autobots by Steve Jurvetson licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

By contrast, collaborative robots can share a space with people and keep moving – even when those people move around or the environment changes unexpectedly – thanks to their capability for sensing contact. They can even work together with people; you can physically move the robot arm to where you want it to be.

Back at the school, with variable stiffness actuators the focus was on design and control of soft robotics – in particular new types of variable stiffness actuators that are biologically inspired. They can work like our muscles do i.e. they can be in a relaxed or rigid mode, switching between the two by changing the tensions of an internal springs mechanism.

The theoretical and practical consequences of soft components between the electric motors and the robot joint are amazing: we can make robots that sense contacts; are more robust; and more energy efficient.

The school had both theory lectures and hands-on sessions where we wrote software for modelling and control of these types of motors. The hands-on sessions were not only exciting because we got experience on a real robot, we also ran a competition on which team could write the best control system to perform a simple robot task.

Four variable stiffness actuators

Four variable stiffness actuators

qb-move motor

The internal springs of the qb-move motor with two electric motors and a biologically-inspired spring mechanism

Industry will still need fast and heavy-payload robot arms for many years to come, but a lot more applications are opening up in terms of technological capabilities and costs that were completely impossible to achieve with traditional industrial robots.

I’m proud that Ocado Technology is at the cutting edge of robotics research, as we are participating in two EU-funded research projects on collaborative and soft robotics, alongside many academic and industrial partners. We’ll be working on the key capabilities our robots will need for advanced applications, such as sensing the environment and reacting to the unexpected. A soft robotics revolution is under way, and will bring us safer, more versatile robots.

Marco Paladini, Robotics Research Software Engineer

May 1st, 2015

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