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How a grocery delivery service became a red hot robotics company

Ocado, a UK-based grocery delivery service, has spent more than a decade investing in warehouse technology. Now an ambitious new robotics project has hardware-hawks scratching their heads.

Forget Amazon's delivery drones. Robots are primed to change the way home shopping services operate, but the most substantive shift will happen in the warehouse, not at your front door.

Ocado, a UK-based online grocer that logged $1.5 billion USD in revenue in 2014 and turned its first profit after 15 years this February, recently announced that it's developing autonomous humanoid robots to augment and assist its human workforce.

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The SecondHands project, as it is known internally, is being carried out in partnership with a consortium of research universities and is part of the European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, an ambitious bid to position the EU as a technology hotbed, particularly in the field of robotics.

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

To get a sense of what these collaborative robot helpers will be doing, imagine an Ocado warehouse. Conveyor belts zip colorful baskets to and fro along diverging paths, placing them in front of an army of human workers who pack them full of groceries. The warehouse is full of machinery, and all of it requires careful and constant maintenance. To perform that maintenance, a second brigade of human mechanics fans out to tinker, optimize, and fix the precise mechanisms that keep modern packing and shipping warehouses buzzing.

It's these workers, the maintenance men and women, that SecondHands is initially being designed to assist. If the image of a humanoid robot handing someone a wrench is quaint, the project's aims are actually something of a moon shot. According to Deacon, the robots will "progressively acquire skills and knowledge needed to provide assistance. In fact, it will even anticipate the needs of the maintenance technician and execute the appropriate tasks without prompting."

In part it will do this by evaluating the pose of the human, a difficult thing for a robot because it requires deft navigation of a 3D environment, and intuitively offer help when it senses the worker is struggling. Collaborative robots have come a long way, but that kind of intelligence would make Ocado's industrial robots the first of their kind to be deployed on a warehouse floor.

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This is actually the second time in as many months that Ocado has made news for its robotics ambitions. In May, the company filed a patent application for a machine that can automatically pick and pack groceries, which would drastically reduce the need for that first army of human workers. Much of Ocado's warehouse systems are already automated, the result of a concerted effort since its founding in 2000 to increase warehouse efficiency through technology.

"Ocado is always looking for ways to enhance its customer proposition through the development of industry-leading and proprietary technology," read a company statement released in May.

That "proprietary" signifier is important. Amazon is also investing heavily in efficient pick-and-pack processes at its warehouses, but it is doing so in partnership with industrial robotics companies like Kiva. Ocado has taken a different tack, and as it refines its robotics systems for semi-structured warehouse environments and begins dabbling in concepts that are further afield, like artificial intelligence, the result may soon be an unlikely hybrid: a grocery delivery company that makes a good chunk of its revenue licensing the robots it develops.