Robots May Soon Be Filling Your Online Orders
July 2, 2019
By Mala Blomquist, editor of the Arizona Jewish Life and Oregon Jewish Life and an AABGU 2019 Murray Fromson Journalism Fellow
Do you get excited anticipating the arrival of an item you ordered online? You don’t have to wait long if you choose an expedited shipping option at checkout. Amazon Prime Now members can even take advantage of having items delivered in a two-hour window.
No doubt, behind-the-scenes people are bustling about in giant warehouses working to fill those orders. But if you opened the box to find a label “Picked by Robot,” would you think you were in a science fiction movie?
If the people working in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Marcus Family Campus in Beer-Sheva, Israel have their way, you will see that label on an item shipped to you in the not-too-distant future.
Dr. Amir Shapiro heads the robotics laboratory where he and graduate student Yoav Golan, undergraduate research assistant Noam Hasson and many others have been conducting extensive research on robotic grasping and manipulation of objects.
Yoav’s master’s thesis was on “The Design of Minimalistic Robot Grasping Systems,” and his work with robotic hands has included designing, controlling and analyzing the ability to grasp and manipulate objects.
“It seems that there’s a long way to go with grasping arbitrary objects,” he says. “My research has been on the minimalist side – a simple hand that can utilize its fingertips the best way possible while still being able to conform itself to the shape we want.”
He goes on to explain that grasping an object can be easy if you know exactly what that object is, what the shape of it is or its flexibility.
For example, this team developed robots for the production line at General Motors. On the assembly line, the robots are programmed to know exactly what the shape of the car door is and then can manipulate it into place very quickly and efficiently. However, if that same robot were to try to grasp another object or catch a ball, they just can’t do it.
“This makes it very difficult for a lot of robotic grasping tasks to be achieved,” says Yoav. “A retailer would need to catalog every single item on the face of the earth in order to plan for each grasp – which is very difficult. There was no solution as of now to grasp an arbitrary object.”
Until Yoav woke up one morning with the simple idea – a sticker. “I think of a problem, and then I go to sleep and when I wake up, I sometimes have a solution. I woke up and thought, ‘Wait, has no one done that?’”
Dr. Shapiro breaks down the process. “The mobile robot travels in front of the shelf; it has a robotic arm and a gripper. The gripper has a single-use sticker – this is the main idea.”
He continues, “(There is) a dispenser of stickers, one on top of the other, the robot takes a sticker and sticks it to the object. It makes it very easy to pick up any size and weight of any object, simply with the stickers.”
The group has applied for a patent and is now looking for funding – and a name for their new startup. Perhaps they should go with “Picked by Robot.” That way their name will be on every sticker and the first thing you see when you open your package.