Online grocer Ocado has showcased a ‘soft’ robotic arm to pick fruit and vegetables without damaging them in its warehouses.

The world’s largest online-only retailer of its kind has been working with Technische Universität Berlin (TUB) to develop innovative robotic solutions.

At its already highly-automated warehouse in Andover, Hampshire, robots select crates containing some 48,000 items that make up customer orders.

These crates are currently taken to a human team for selection, but in future this new technology could replace them.

To avoid damaging sensitive and unpredictably shaped grocery items, the robotic arm uses the principle of ‘environmental constraint exploitation’ to establish a carefully orchestrated interaction between the hand, the object being grasped, and the environment surrounding the respective item.

It represents an integral part of the SoMa project - a European Union-funded, Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation in the field of humanoid robotics.

Ocado

This venture also includes researchers, academics and scientists from the University of Pisa, the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR, the German aerospace agency), the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, and Disney Research Zürich.

 Dr Graham Deacon, robotics research team leader at Ocado Technology, said: "Ocado and its academic partners are developing some of the most innovative technologies in the field of robotics.

“With SoMa, we are pursuing a new direction for robotic grasping by developing robot hands that can safely pick easily damageable items such as fruits and vegetables.

“The RBO Hand 2 designed by the Technische Universität Berlin offers a versatile, cost-effective and safe solution for robotic grasping and manipulation that integrates very well with Ocado's highly-automated warehouse retail solutions."

Ocado

The SoMa project is part of a continuum of robotics and engineering R&D projects in development at Ocado.

In December 2016, the firm started operating from its highly automated Andover warehouse which includes hundreds of robots swarming on a grid the size of several football pitches.

In addition, Ocado Technology is a coordinator of the SecondHands project, another Horizon 2020-funded programme that aims to design a collaborative robot that can learn from and offer assistance to warehouse maintenance technicians in a proactive manner.