Ocado Technology leads development of one of the world's most advanced collaborative robots

Collaborative robots will soon support human workers

The ground-breaking humanoid robot will increase safety, efficiency and productivity in the workplace.

Ocado Technology leads development of one of the world's most advanced collaborative robots

Development of one of the world’s most advanced collaborative robots begins today as part of an EU-wide initiative involving Ocado Technology and four of Europe’s leading technology research institutions.

Under the SecondHands project, Ocado Technology is coordinating a consortium of universities to create an autonomous humanoid robot. It will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced vision systems to understand what human workers want and offer assistance with difficult maintenance jobs. For example, it will hand tools to human maintenance technicians and manipulate objects like ladders, pneumatic cylinders and bolts, abilities which cannot be found in any commercial robot. The objective is to increase safety, efficiency and productivity in the workplace.

“The ultimate aim is for humans to end up relying on collaborative robots because they have become an active participant in their daily tasks,” explained Dr Graham Deacon, Robotics Research Team Leader at Ocado Technology. “In essence the SecondHands robot will know what to do, when to do it and how to do it in a manner that a human can depend on.”

The initiative, which will span five years, and is expected to use seventy two person years (equivalent to 855 person months) of research effort to complete, aims to break new ground in robotics. Key areas of focus, include: 

  • Proactive assistance: the robot developed under the SecondHands project will have cognitive and perceptive ability to understand when the operator is in need of help, understand how this help can be given and provide relevant assistance
  • Artificial intelligence: The team will enable the robot to progressively acquire skills and knowledge needed to provide assistance. In fact, it will even anticipate the needs of the maintenance technician and execute the appropriate tasks without prompting
  • 3D perception: Advanced 3D vision systems will allow the robot to estimate the 3D articulated pose of humans and offer support when it is needed without being asked
  • Humanoid form and flexibility: A humanoid shape and human-like flexibility will enable natural collaboration between humans and the robot. It will feature an active sensor head, two redundant torque controlled arms, two anthropomorphic hands, bendable and extendable torso and a wheeled mobile platform

The SecondHands project, so-called because the robot will literally provide a second pair of hands to human workers, is part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme, which includes one of the worlds largest civilian robotics programs.

As coordinator of the project, Ocado Technology will work alongside University College London, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, La Sapienza University of Rome and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. The technology firm, which powers Ocado.com, will build a special testing facility in Hatfield where the robot will be subjected to rigorous real-world trials.

UK’s competitive position in advanced robotics research strengthened

The development of one of the world’s first autonomous robots comes amidst research by Boston Consulting Group that identifies the UK as a leading adopter of industrial robots over the next decade. The BCG research complements findings by the International Federation of Robotics, estimating that the global market for industrial robots was worth $9.5bn in 2013.

Ocado Technology taking a lead in robotics research in the UK

The development of this bleeding edge robot puts Ocado Technology at the forefront of companies working on advanced robotics in the UK. The company currently employs ten robotics experts, from leading robotics research institutions, such as The University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London.

‘Soft hand’ grasping skills

In addition to the SecondHands project, Ocado Technology is also working on a second, complementary, Horizon 2020 project: ΣΩMA (pronounced “SOMA”) will see the firm partner with a number of universities to explore new ways for robots to physically interact with their environment. It is hoped this will create a ground-breaking robotic hand which can be used in conjunction with SecondHands.

Emulating a human hand, the robotic gripper will know when to grasp softly – such as when picking an apple – or to grip more tightly, such as when lifting a bottle of water.