MIT's soft robotic system designed to pack groceries

The first self-checkout system was installed in a Kroger grocery store just outside of Atlanta in 1986. It took several decades, but eventually the technology spread throughout the U.S. Given the way grocery stores are automating, it seems robotic bagging can't be far behind.

MIT's CSAIL department demonstrated RoboGrocery this week. It combines computer vision with a soft robotic gripper to bag a variety of items. To test the system, researchers placed 10 unknown items on a grocery conveyor belt.

The products ranged from fragile items such as grapes, bread, kale, muffins and crackers to solid objects such as soup cans, food cans and ice cream containers. The vision system works first, detecting the objects before determining their shape and orientation on the belt.

As soon as the grasper touches the grapes, pressure sensors in the fingers determine that they are in fact fragile and therefore should not go to the bottom of the bag – something many of us have surely learned the hard way. Next, it notes that the soup can is a more rigid structure and sticks it to the bottom of the bag.

“This is an important first step toward robots packing groceries and other items in the real world,” said Annan Zhang, one of the lead authors of the study. “Although we are not quite ready for commercial deployment, our research demonstrates the power of integrating multiple sensing modalities into soft robotic systems.”

The team said there's still a lot of room for improvement, including improving the grasper and imaging systems to determine how and in what order to pack things. As the system becomes more robust, it could be applied outside of grocery stores to industrial locations like recycling plants.

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