A grocery store is testing squishy robot hands to pack its bags

Shake hands with the future.
Shake hands with the future.
Image: Ocado
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We’re getting really close to completely automated deliveries.

Ocado Technology, the research division of Ocado, a large UK online grocery delivery company, today showed off a robot concept that it has been working on with a range of European universities and Disney Research’s Zurich office. The robot is essentially a soft, malleable hand attached to a relatively standard industrial robotic arm that can be used to grip produce without damaging it.

The fingers and palm of the “soft hand”, which was developed by the Technical University of Berlin, are pieces of expandable rubber that are controlled by forcing air through them. The hand can adjust its shape around the object it’s gripping, allowing it to pick up small objects, like an apple, as well as larger objects, like a bag of limes. Ocado said in a blog post that it’s still developing its idea—in the video, the bot was able to pick up the fruit in front of it (which was actually fake), but can’t yet pick up the objects on its own. But this technology has massive implications for the possibility of robotics to displace aspects of the human workforce, particularly in the logistics industry.

The last few years have seen all sorts of projects and research undertaken to simplify and automate much of the labor-intensive work of packing, loading, and shipping goods to people. Amazon employs nearly 270,000 people across the world, the vast majority of whom work in its warehouses preparing orders to be shipped to customers. In 2012, Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, a company that makes robots that can ferry goods around a warehouse four times faster than a human can. The company is also developing its own robots to identify items, grab them off the shelves, and stuff them into boxes. It’s also working, rather publicly, on autonomous drones that can ferry those packages to consumers in less than 30 minutes. One of the missing components in all this automation (other than what happens to all the human workers employed right now), is robots that have the ability to hold objects in their powerful robot hands without crushing them into smithereens. Ocado’s tests could theoretically solve this problem.

Ocado makes roughly 250,000 deliveries a day in the UK. In London, just south of Ocado’s Hertfordshire headquarters, a robotics startup called Starship has recently started fulfilling delivery orders using adorable, cooler-shaped robots. It isn’t much of a leap to imagine a world in the near future where grocery delivery involves pressing a few buttons on an app, and waiting a few minutes for a robot to roll up with the week’s shopping—all without having to interact with another human or go outside.