Online supermarket Ocado’s humanoid robot is the factory worker of the future

United Kingdom online supermarket Ocado wants to establish itself as one of the most tech-savvy ecommerce companies around — and it’s got the (prototype) robot to prove it. Called ARMAR-6, the humanoid bot is being developed as part of the European Commission’s SecondHands project. It is now being put through its paces by Ocado’s innovation wing, Ocado Technology, with the goal of one day working alongside humans in its warehouses.

“The SecondHands project aims to create a robot that provides help to our warehouse technicians in a proactive manner,” Alex Voica, head of Technology PR and Communications for Ocado, told Digital Trends. “Our warehouses include state-of-the-art automation and robotics systems, and our technicians and operations engineers are tasked with ensuring that they function 24/7, 365 days a year. The ultimate goal is for the robot to use machine learning and computer vision to scan its surrounding environment and identify tasks it could help with. So, for example, if it observes a technician attempting to change a panel and requiring a set of tools, it will come and offer its assistance — either by holding the panel for the engineer or grabbing the various tools that are needed.”

In addition to picking up objects and recognizing its surroundings, ARMAR-6 will also benefit from an Alexa-style speech recognition system, allowing conversations between the robot and the humans it works with. Development on the robot is being carried out by a number of universities, including the the Institute for Anthropomatics and Robotics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), University College London, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and Sapienza University.

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“The choice of a humanoid form factor was influenced primarily by its behavior when working with humans,” Voica continued. “While some industrial robots tend to position themselves in ways that are uncomfortable to humans, we really wanted to design a robot that can work seamlessly with our technicians and make their jobs easier instead of getting in the way. The choice of form also allowed the project to rely on [creator Professor Tamin Asfour’s] prior experience with building humanoid robots and accelerate the time to manufacture. Finally, having a humanoid behavior and form makes the interactions between humans and machines more natural. Research shows people are more comfortable working with both the morphology and behavior that they expect to see.”

At the end of the SecondHands project, the hope is that it will be possible to integrate all ARMAR’s separate technologies into one unified system. And after that? Smarter warehouses, hopefully. Who knows? If Ocado ever branches out into physical stores, we could even find ARMAR-6 on the shop floor.