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

Posted In: Press releases

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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

Posted In: Blog

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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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