Online grocery retailer Ocado has been working on a robotic “soft manipulation” project which aims to automate the packing of fragile items in its high-tech warehouses.
The SoMa project, funded by the EU, is a collaborative research project between Ocado Technology and specialist institutions from around the world.
It aims to overcome the challenge of handling easily damageable items like fruit and vegetables, which also come in unique, unpredictable shapes.
It uses a hand-like “compliant gripper”, which has spring like qualities, attached to an industrial robot arm.
It is thought the SoMa will be able to handle all 48,000 items on offer at Ocado.
The company is working on another robotic warehouse helper called Secondhands, a humanoid robot who will work alongside a staff member.
“Ideally we will be able to develop one robot hand, or a small number of hands, that will be able to deal with a whole range of objects,” said Alex Voica, who works in Ocado’s technology arm.
“The whole aim of what we are doing is to boost productivity. Right now we are limited by the capability of the warehouse and by the productivity of humans.”
Ocado’s finance director Duncan Tatton-Brown added: “We are not only creating more operational jobs but creating a lot more jobs for software and hardware engineers.
“We are inventing and patenting things which is good news. We are creating innovations in the UK and we would argue we are a market leader in the world.”