Robo-sidekick: Ocado’s super-smart machine helps engineers fix machines by chatting and handing them tools

You may never have guessed it but grocery delivery service Ocado has been pioneering industrial robotics for some time now. 

Robo-sidekick: Ocado’s super-smart machine helps engineers fix machines by chatting and handing them tools

Deploying the first models around a year ago, Ocado’s fleet of robots scoot about Ocado’s enormous warehouse, picking up goods and delivering them into the open arms of their human overlords. I mean… colleagues. One of these robots, a creepy mechanical hand, is able to pick and pack fruit and veg without harming or crushing the produce.

Now, Ocado has unveiled a prototype of a collaborative robot that will assist these human engineers in the maintenance and repair of its thousand-strong, grocery-carrying robot army. Robots to fix the robots. 

READ NEXT: In the future, grocery delivery service will be driverless

Developed at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Tamin Asfour and his team from the High Performance Humanoid Technologies Lab based in the Institute for Anthropomatics and Robotics have developed a highly-intelligent robot that is able to both observe, learn, and perceive its surroundings in an industrial environment without prompting.

The SecondHands project prototype, called ARMAR-6, will be able to support technicians based in Ocado’s warehouse. And, as the project’s name suggests, the robot will be a second pair of hands to offer help to engineers. If strength is needed, or precision, the hands will be there to do all the heavy-lifting. The best part? You can talk to the robot and give it commands.

 Using a combination of factors, the ARMAR-6 robot is able to talk back and forth with the Ocado engineer: “There is a dedicated software package developed by KIT to enable the robot companion to conduct a spoken dialogue with human users,” Alex Voica, head of technology PR and communications at Ocado Technology, tells Alphr. 

“This package assembles a collection of components: the Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) component and the Spoken Dialogue Management (SDM) component. 

“SDM includes the Natural Language Understanding (NLU) and Natural Language Generation (NLG) sub-components which are responsible for maintaining a natural conversation.” 

There are a lot of acronyms there, but as an example, if a technician asks the robot to hand over a spanner, the robot will scan its surroundings and might detect several spanners in the toolbox. The robot will then ask the technician: The one in the corner or the black one?

The SecondHands project required collaboration between teams from KIT, University College London (UCL), Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Sapienza University de Roma to build each various step in the design of the robot.  

Ocado Technologies wants to introduce advanced computer vision and cognition, and mechatronics in industrial settings, showing how work between robots and humans can speed up and improve productivity. 

Industrial robots are predicted to grow by 15% in 2018,and as technology improves, we’ll begin to see robots become commonplace in industrial settings. Though, while it’s easy to look at robots critically and scream to the mountains about the incoming robot revolution, research suggests, we shouldn’t maybe worry that much. 

In fact, as a recent study undertaken by the Economist Intelligence Unit suggests, collaborative robots will be a good thing for the UK. If the country is to thrive, we need to embrace them, and allow them to work in tandem with human workers. 

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