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Ocado leads research to create the robotic warehouse assistant of the future

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Online grocer Ocado announced today that it is leading work on a project to build an autonomous humanoid robot that will help staff its distribution centres in the future.

Work to build the robot starts today in an EU-wide initiative led by Ocado Technology, the technology arm of the Ocado ecommerce grocery business, and four leading European research institutions.

The SecondHands project aims to meld artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced vision systems to create an autonomous robot that understands what human workers want help with, and what help to offer. It might, for example, hand tools to a technician or move ladders, pneumatic cylinders and bolts. Eventually it would be able to anticipate what help will be needed and offer help. Its shape is designed to enable human and robot to work together naturally, using an active sensor head, two redundant torque controlled arms, two anthropomorphic hands, a torso that can bend and extend and a wheeled mobile platform.

The robot will eventually be tested in a purpose-built facility in Hatfield, where the robot will be tested using what the company describes as “rigorous real-world trials”.

“The ultimate aim is for humans to end up relying on collaborative robots because they have become an active participant in their daily tasks,” said 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.”

A spokesman added: “The robot will basically help keep the warehouse running so they can keep delivering products to customers.”

The work is expected to take five years to complete, including 72 person years of research work. Researchers from University College London, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, La Sapienza University of Rome and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne will work with Ocado Technology on the project.

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