Online retailer Ocado has developed a "vision system" for robots that it plans to use in its warehouses. The vision system will be used alongside artificial intelligence to enable the robots to identify different goods, either in pallets coming into the company's warehouses or in customer "totes" as they are filled up prior to dispatch, and to act accordingly.
"The Holy Grail of what we want to do in robotics - there are a number of them - but one of them is picking products from a 40,000 SKU catalogue into a customer tote that has got other items in it. It has to worry about all sorts of rules to do with safety and segregation, such as what can go with what, what can't go on top of what and all that kind of thing. It's a very difficult problem," said Ocado Technology technical director Paul Clarke.
In addition, in a warehouse environment, those robots will be working alongside staff, adding a further challenging dimension. "If you have a process that is just done by robots, then you can kind of rely on everything being in its place. But if you have a process that is a mix of robots and human beings, then inevitably you can't to the nearest millimetre know where the packet of herbs will be compared to anything else," said Clarke.
In other words, while robots can be programmed to put something precisely in its place, a human being can't, even though they may still be following company procedures.
Furthermore, with customer totes being moved around the warehouse on a systems of conveyors at a speed of 25 kilometres-per-hour, goods will likely move around in the totes anyway. "So you have to build-in sophistication in terms of vision systems that are way beyond what typical robots use.
"That's a key focus of the research and development team - building the vision systems we need for the kinds of robotics applications that we can foresee needing in our warhouses. That's why we had to start from scratch. We looked around at everything in the market and best-of-breed just wasn't good enough," said Clarke.
The technology has been developed in Ocado's research and development "stream", part of Ocado Technology, which was established to develop technologies that can help the company maintain its technical lead in online commerce.
The company moved into such research because it found that so many elements of its operations, including logistics and warehouse management could not be adequately served with off-the-shelf software and systems.
Ocado's ultimate aim is to use its technology developments to take its services overseas, either directly or by selling its software and services to other companies.
Ocado Technology technical director Paul Clarke was talking to Graeme Burton in an exclusive feature for the next issue of Computing.