Robo Shop: E-Commerce Warehouses in 2018

Ocado’s new high-tech warehouse could be mistaken for a scene of an industrial warehouse in a sci-fi movie, where its hundreds of cuboid robots with flashing lights and antennas dart across an enormous grid, accelerating and slowing at a speed that prevents collision.

These mechanical units have the monotonous task of selecting groceries for Ocado shoppers. The retailer’s new state of the art facility represents the forefront of technology innovations available in e-commerce warehouses today, designed for a smooth, faster and more accurate flow of its goods to customers.

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Ocado’s new e-commerce warehouse in the south of England.

While automated technology has been around for a while, the intelligence of these machines and how they collaborate with each other and humans is what is evolving.

As e-commerce around the globe flourishes and customers increasingly expect quicker delivery times, online retailers are looking for greater efficiencies in the supply chain to meet these.

Advances in artificial intelligence, big data, sensor and vision technology, as well as the falling cost of these systems is what is making it more possible for leading retailers to invest millions of dollars to meet new retail needs.

Graham Deakin, robotics research team leader at Ocado Technology, says he was first hired at the company seven years ago to get robots to “pack the shopping”. He says that things have evolved quite a bit since then.

Deakin says the online retailer is now testing its first humanoid robot, aka, the factory worker of the future. The “SecondHands Project” exists to develop a robot to help its warehouse service technicians in a proactive manner. It has been named SecondHands as it literally meant to be a second pair of hands for the technicians to get their work done. The humanoid bot, called ARMAR-6, is currently being put through the paces with the goal of one day being able to work alongside humans in warehouses.

The ultimate objective of SecondHands is that its robots will use machine learning and computer vision to scan its surrounding environment and identify tasks it could help with. For example, “KIT (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) and UCL (University College London) have been working together (with Ocado) to get grasping of a spray bottle, an item that is regularly used for maintaining the automation hardware inside the warehouse,” explains Deakin.

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Ocado Technology’s SecondHands humanoid prototype ARMAR-6

The development team have also been able to achieve “markerless 3D human pose estimation” from an ocular video, for ARMAR-6. “They (the humanoids) are also able to track and distinguish between multiple moving objects in a dynamic environment,” says Deakin.

In addition to picking up objects and recognising its surroundings, ARMAR-6 will also feature an Alexa-style speech recognition system, enabling conversations between the robot and the humans it works alongside.

Ocado says that it hopes to integrate ARMAR-6’s technology into the rest of its warehouse systems to create one unified system. After that, perhaps Ocado may wish to branch out and get its humanoid out on the shop floor. For now though, wherever they may be used, humanoid sci-fi is well and truly here.

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