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Meet Toru, the German robot that’s picking through your packages

Great ideas aren’t always actionable. When Frederick Brantner first decided to build a highly selective picking robot, he thought he’d introduce the device to homes. He imagined the robot organizing the living room and separating light laundry from dark, decluttering the kids room and tidying shoes by the door. What Brantner didn’t initially foresee was how expensive such a machine would be on the consumer market, so he reimagined his brainchild for industrial uses.

Toru is a line of automated warehouse robots that Brantner and his company, Magazino, hope will make the picking and shipping industry more efficient. The machines are designed to navigate warehouses, identify single objects, such as an envelope or book, and use an artificial “tongue” and “arm” to hold surrounding objects in place as they pick the desired parcel from the shelf. Sounds simple? Not for a machine.

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Robots can walk and dance with relative ease. They can twirl pencils and help carry your bags with some training. But when it comes to picking individual objects from a shelf, they really struggle.

“Despite the many capabilities of these highly intelligent machines, the most difficult actions for robots are hand-eye coordination, perception, and mobility,” Brantner told Digital Trends. He points out that machines can perform relatively complex tasks with ease but can’t keep up with 1-year-olds in other cases.

“Identifying, localization, and grabbing a toy … is second nature for a toddler,” he said. “For a robot, interpreting the signals of a camera and translating appropriately is an enormous task.”

As far as speed is concerned, Toru isn’t quite up to human standards yet. Brantner admits the machine works slower than people pickers, but still, it doesn’t take lunch breaks. “Toru has no limitation on the number of hours it can work for. For example: Even if Toru’s performance is only 50 percent of a human picker, by working 16 hours instead of a eight hour shift, the result is the same.”

But Brantner insists we shouldn’t worry about Toru taking our jobs. The machine is built to work around and alongside humans, he said, using sensors to avoid collisions, and assisting with lifting objects that are heavy and high up. “Toru is designed to be as flexible as a human, as a colleague,” he said.

In April, Toru took a test run at the shipping center of the world’s largest logistics company, DHL. In time, it might be common for Toru to have picked one of your packages while working the late shift.