June 11, 2015      

Online retailer Ocado Group PLC is developing a humanoid robot that it claims could be “the most advanced assistive robot in the world.”

Ocado Technology‘s goal is for SecondHands to be able to perceive and learn as humans do, with full autonomy enabled by artificial intelligence and human-like hands. The collaborative robot is being designed to work safely alongside staffers at Ocado’s logistics facilities. Hatfield, England-based Ocado is often described as the “Amazon of food.”

However, as the recent Amazon picking challenge and DARPA Robotics Challenge demonstrated, SecondHands has several hurdles to overcome. Not only will it have to distinguish between varied objects using machine vision and object-recognition software, but it will also have to move smoothly and conduct tasks quickly enough to keep up with or eventually replace human employees.

Mastering manipulation
Ocado is working on 3-D color vision and grasping for SecondHands. The android’s arms, torso, and end effectors will copy human anatomy, based on the ARMAR humanoid robot developed by the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology in Germany.

Ocado is also working on soft manipulation systems, with air-powered fingers and a finer sense of touch. SecondHands will initially move on wheels, but tracks or legs are eventually possible.

Autonomy through AI
The University College London, La Sapienza University of Rome, and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne are contributing research into contextual understanding. SecondHands will supposedly be able to watch a human do something such as climb a ladder, determine how to help him or her, and then apply that information to other tasks.

KIT's ARMAR humanoid robot

The ARMAR robot at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology.

“We would expect the robots to be able to track what the engineer is doing, understand the task that the engineer is trying to perform and then synthetically understand its own capabilities as a robot to proactively offer assistance,” said Alex Harvey, head of project management at Ocado.

In addition, the autonomous robot would use natural speech recognition to receive commands from human co-workers. “The ultimate aim is for humans to end up relying on collaborative robots because they have become an active participant in their daily tasks,” said Graham Deacon, chief of the robotics research team at Ocado Technology. “In essence, the SecondHands robot will know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.”

“For it to be truly useful, it has to have a base capability, and it has to be able to learn on the job, and it has to be able to get better,” Harvey said. “As it keeps learning, it will become more useful.”

Ocado Technology’s robotics team includes 10 people from research institutions including the University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London. It also has a site in Krakow, Poland, as its parent moved from in-house technology to services based on the Internet of Things for other retailers.

European funding and tight timeline

The project has received €7 million ($7.86 million) from the European Union’s embattled Horizon 2020 program, which is intended to encourage technology innovation and commercialization across the continent. Horizon 2020 is also supporting research into soft manipulation.

Ocado’s revenues grew by 20 percent to almost £1 billion ($1.5 billion) last year. Last month, the company filed a U.S. patent application for two robots that would work together to find and move stacks of items in warehouses. This would allow for greater storage density than in Amazon’s warehouses, which currently use Kiva robots.

Ocado said its first SecondHands prototype should be operational in 18 months, and it hopes to have production models by 2020.

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