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Online supermarket Ocado unveils robot prototype designed to help maintain warehouse bots

Online supermarket Ocado unveils robot prototype designed to help maintain warehouse bots


It’s a little slow right now, but a robot that can help fix robots is a must for the future

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UK online supermarket Ocado is on a quest to automate its business as much as possible, experimenting with technology from flexible robot hands (for packing soft fruit) to self-driving delivery vehicles. Its latest robotic addition to the team is a prototype bot that’s designed to help human technicians in warehouses.

The ARMAR-6 robot is being developed by Ocado with help from a number of universities, including Switzerland’s EPFL and the UK’s UCL. The work is part of an EU-funded project to develop collaborative robots (or co-bots) that can safely work alongside humans.

The ARMAR-6 has a humanoid torso, head, and arms, and moves about on a wheeled base. It uses cameras to locate and grasp objects, which it can pass to human engineers working in Ocado’s warehouses. The company uses trolley bots, robot scanners, and more to shift produce around its facilities in the UK, and is now trying to export its technology to other retailers. Last year, it landed a significant deal to outfit warehouses for French supermarket operator Groupe Casino.

However, as is clear from the promotional video above, the ARMAR-6 still has a long way to go before it’s ready for the workplace. Its movements are slow and hesitant, and its actions have to be planned out in advance.

Speaking to Wired UK, Ocado’s robot research chief Graham Deacon described one task in which ARMAR-6 had to find a spray bottle and pass it to a technician. “At the moment, this is a prescribed sequence,” said Deacon. “But the ultimate aim is for the robot to be able to recognize where in a maintenance task the technician is and understand from its behavioral repertoire what will be a good thing for it to do in order to assist the technician.” For now, though, humans are still very much needed.