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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

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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