© Alec Meer
© Alec Meer

Robotic arms aim to transform food shopping

Part-supported through the EU-funded SOMA project, robotics researchers have developed versatile robotic grippers to pick thousands of supermarket items.

Under the Horizon 2020 EU-funded Soft-bodied intelligence for Manipulation (SOMA) project, researchers from the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB), Germany; Università di Pisa, Italy; Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Italy; Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. (DLR), Germany; the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, Ocado Technology, UK; and Disney Research Zurich, Switzerland, have experimented with the robotic handling of easily damageable and unusually shaped objects such as fruit and vegetables.

The grippers were designed to handle the full 48,000 items stocked at online only supermarket Ocado’s highly automated warehouses whilst ensuring limited damage to a whole shopping list of fragile food products.

To avoid damaging these sensitive items, the project used compliant grippers in conjunction with industrial robotic arms.

The experiments carried out on artificial fruit stored in an International Fruit Container (IFCO) tray revealed that the robotic handlers were able to successfully grasp a variety of shapes and that the chance of success interestingly increased when environmental constraints were used effectively to restrict the movement of the object.

The team now plan on working with more complex items and constraints to see whether the robotic arms can adapt fully to the supermarket scenario.

The SOMA project has received just over €7m to explore a new avenue of robotic manipulation, exploiting the physical constraints imposed by the environment to enable robust grasping and manipulation in dynamic, open, and highly variable contexts. It will run until April 2019.