Soft Robotics Research Advances With Ocado, European Partners

In the News
January 31, 2017

One of the biggest hurdles to more widespread supply chain automation is the ability to manipulate a wide variety of objects.

In Europe, robotics research into soft grippers is making progress as part of a four-year program.

Ocado Technology, the research division of online grocer Ocado Group Ltd., has been developing soft manipulator technology with European partners. The British company has also been working on its SecondHands humanoid robot, as well as other warehouse automation.

The SoMa project was funded through the EU’s Horizon 2020 program and includes collaboration between Ocado, the Technical University of Berlin (TUB), the University of Pisa in Italy, the Italian Institute of Technology, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the Austrian Institute of Science and Technology, and Disney Research Zurich.

Business Takeaways:

  • Ocado, the U.K.’s largest online grocer, is actively developing different robots for its warehouses, including soft manipulators for common household items.
  • With partners across Europe, Ocado is conducting research for the SoMa consortium and doesn’t expect the Brexit to affect its Horizon 2020 funding.
  • The technical challenges to be solved and potential market are both large enough that Ocado’s head of research doesn’t SoMa to be duplicative of other robotics research.

Consortiums reach across the Channel

“A few years ago, we were busy forming our own consortium for SecondHand,” said Alex Harvey, head of research and simulation at Ocado Technology. “We got invited to this consortium, which we formed with the Technical University of Berlin, so we were happy to be the U.K. research contribution to SoMa.”

“Most partners have contributed research,” he explained to Robotics Business Review. “Some have contributed hands, others the robotic arm. We’ve conducted research at our facilities into generic parts planning and vision-guided manipulation.”

SecondHand successfully passed its Year 1 review last summer, and we’re working on an updated integration plan for the five-year project,” Harvey said. “An Ocado lab warehouse has been built — with our own money, not Horizon 2020’s — and it’s ready and waiting for robots from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, which should be delivered in the next few months.”

“SecondHand is vision-based manipulation for rigid items, while SoMa’s RBO Hand 2 is the complementary research for deformable items,” he said. “All the research projects are to enable us to pick the full range of products for our uses.”

Although Horizon 2020 funds are involved, the so-called Brexit has not affected the SoMa robotics research.

“Happily, the project officer has confirmed that we’re fine,” Harvey said. “The contracts were all signed 18 months ago, and we’ve been told that we can still file applications.”

“Officially, we’ve been told that nothing has changed, but the concerns are very valid,” he said. “Politicians could still...

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