The SecondHands robot has superhuman strength to assist maintenance engineers © Ocado Innovation Limited
The SecondHands robot has superhuman strength to assist maintenance engineers © Ocado Innovation Limited

Ocado trials humanoid robot warehouse worker

12 January 2018

Online grocery retailer Ocado has announced it will start testing a humanoid robot to assist human engineers maintain its automated fulfilment centres.

Ocado unveiled the first prototype of its €7m SecondHands robot – a humanoid robot designed to help maintenance technicians keep the automated machinery that sorts out customer orders working.

Ocado said it worked in collaboration with four European universities, including Switzerland's EPFL to create a robotic assistant with a high level of human robot interaction and superhuman strength. 

The hardware and dialogue system were developed in the lab of Tamim Asfour at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. The robot's vision system comes from Sapienza University in Rome and University College London.

The work was part of an EU-funded project, called Horizon 2020, to develop collaborative robots that can safely work alongside humans.

It added that it also has cognitive decision-making abilities, which means it can actively learn from humans through observation.

Graham Deacon, Ocado’s robot research chief, told Wired that at the moment the robot was constrained to doing prescribed sequences, such as finding a spray bottle and passing it to a technician.

“The ultimate aim is for the robot to be able to recognise where in a maintenance task the technician is and understand from its behavioural repertoire what will be a good thing for it to do in order to assist the technician,” he said. 

Ocado, which delivers groceries for Waitrose and Morrisons, has already invested millions in developing technologies aimed at automating elements of its business, including the management of goods in its warehouses and its logistics and delivery.

In its warehouse in Andover, Hampshire, hundreds of battery-powered robots shift boxes of groceries stored in a giant grid.

In February last year, Ocado released footage of its “soft manipulation” project, which aims to use a robotic arm to handle fragile and dangerous goods like fruit, bleach and thin glass. 

In June it announced trials of self-driving delivery trucks.   

Alex Voica, marketing communications manager at Ocado, told the Guardian that with the help of robots, the company had improved the productivity of its staff by 50%.

“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 productitivy of humans,” he said.

According to the International Federation of RoboticsWorld Robotic Report released in September, collaborative robot installations will grow by 15% in 2018. 

The report said looking further; the number of robots installed worldwide is expected to increase from 1.8m at the end of 2016 to 3.05m by 2020.

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