A cannister of oatmeal, a tube of chips, or a box of teabags—it’s all the same to this warehouse automaton. Developed by Ocado, the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer, the machine has been designed to pick individual items out of big crates of groceries, in order to assemble orders for customers in the firm’s highly automated distribution centers.
The device features a small suction cup at the end of a movable arm, which can be lowered onto a product to pick it up. Some robotic systems build accurate 3-D models of product packaging and use image recognition to retrieve items, but Ocado’s engineers realized that every grocery crate the robot will deal with contains multiple items that are all identical. That means the robot needs only to grab one object from the box, rather than searching for particular items in a jumbled mess.
So the team developed a system that simply finds an item in a crate by looking at data from a 3-D camera. “It looks for patches in the scene that are flat enough, horizontal enough, and big enough to pick up,” explains Graham Deacon, team leader of the robotics research team at Ocado. The upshot: the robot doesn’t need any prior knowledge of a product to handle it. The arm homes in on the picking point, plunges its sucker onto the item, and tries to grab it. That works a lot of the time, and Deacon says that at a cautious estimate, the machine can pick up a few thousand of Ocado’s 50,000 products.
Once it’s grabbed an item, the system can rotate the object in order to pass its bar code by a scanner to ensure that it’s the correct one. The 3-D camera then spots a safe place to set down the item in a customer’s order, so that nothing gets damaged.
The size of the suction cup puts a natural limit on the weight of the object the arm can pick, as does the surface of the item—anything porous or corrugated defeats the approach. But according to Deacon, his team is working on larger suction cups and alternative picking devices so that similar approaches can be used to grab a wider array of items, from bananas to bottles of wine. The arm in the video above will be tested in one of Ocado’s warehouses starting early next year to see whether it can reliably take up work that is currently performed by humans.
Ocado isn’t alone in trying to build robots that can perform this kind of task, which is notoriously difficult for a machine to do. This year, for instance, Amazon crowned an Australian arcade claw crane-style robot as the star picker at its annual Robotics Challenge. And RightHand Robotics has been using cloud-based techniques to share learning among machines in order for them all to do a better job of grabbing products out of crates.
But none of the systems can match a human—yet.