via screengrab of MIT CSAIL video

Groceries are a bit of an odd duck when it comes to automation. It’s a bunch of irregular shapes with different weights and oftentimes they are very delicate, so you can’t have just any robot hand trying to pick up and move them around. A grocery packing robot needs a certain… touch.

This was the inspiration for researchers at MIT and Harvard, who have developed an oragami-inspired Magic Ball robot gripper that can gently pick up irregularly shaped objects and place them where they need to go. From the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab blog post:

To give these soft robots a bit of a hand, researchers from MIT and Harvard have developed a new gripper that’s both soft and strong: a cone-shaped origami structure that collapses in on objects, much like a Venus flytrap, to pick up items that are as much as 100 times its weight. This motion lets the gripper grasp a much wider range of objects – such as soup cans, hammers, wine glasses, drones, and even a single broccoli floret.

You can check the origami bot in action here:

Funny enough, this breakthrough robot was built to bag groceries. From that same blog post:

“One of my moonshots is to create a robot that can automatically pack groceries for you,” says MIT professor Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and one of the senior authors of a new paper about the project.

There are actually a number of companies working on making robotic manipulation of groceries better. Soft Robotics has its “air actuated soft elastomeric end effectors” for delicate handling, and OpenAI has developed a robotic hand that can learn to do more human-like actions (like nestling groceries in a bag).

Rus’ breakthrough is coming at the right time. Robot-powered fulfillment centers are being built by a number of grocery outlets including Kroger, Albertsons and Ahold Delhaize. Right now, these robot systems are more like crates that shuttle food items around and deposit them with a human who takes the assembled food and places it into the appropriate order.

If this origami robot works as described, humans could be removed from the fulfillment equation altogether. This brings up a whole hornet’s nest of societal issues that we talk about often here, and is part of a much-needed larger discussion about the role of robots in human society. But for the purposes of this blog post, let’s just focus on the technology.

Using an origami picker in conjunction with an automated fulfillment center means your grocer can bag your order faster. Add in a self-driving delivery vehicle and you have an automated workflow that can run all day and night.

I’m sure this new Origami gripper will come up during our chat with Albertsons on-stage at our upcoming ArticulATE food robotics summit in San Francisco on April 16th. Get a grip on your ticket today!

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