This Robot Picks Up Unseen Groceries Using Its Little Suction Cup
A tub of oatmeal, a tube of chips, or a box of teabags—it’s all the same to this warehouse robot. 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,… Read more
A tub of oatmeal, a tube of chips, or a box of teabags—it’s all the same to this warehouse robot. 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 robot features a small suction cup at the end of a movable arm, which can be lowered onto a product to pick it up using a vacuum. Rather than building accurate 3-D models of product packaging and use image recognition to pick up items, engineers at Ocado realized that every grocery crate the robot will deal with actually contains multiple items that are all the same. That means the robot only needs to work out how to easily pick one object out of the box, rather grabbing particular items from a jumbled mess.
So the team developed a system that simply finds an item in the create that it’s able to grab by looking at data from a 3-D camera. “It look 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: it doesn’t need any prior knowledge of a product to try and pick it up. Then the arm hones in on the picking point, plunges its sucker onto the item, and tries to pick it up. It works a lot of the time, and Deacon says that at a cautious estimate it can pick up a few thousand of Ocado’s 50,000 products.
Once it’s grabbed an item, the system can scan rotate the object in order to pass its barcode past a scanner to ensure the correct item has been picked. Then it also uses its 3-D camera to spot a safe spot to place down the item in a customers order, so that nothing gets damaged.
The size of the suction cup puts a natural limit on the weight of the object that the arm can pick, as does the surface of the item—anything porous or corrugated obviously defeats the approach. But according to Deacon, his team is working on larger suction cups and alternative picking devices to use similar approaches to grab a wider array of items, from bananas to bottles of wine. The arm seen here will be tested in one of Ocado’s warehouses from 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.