QUT robot enters Amazon competition

Wednesday, 26 July, 2017

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A robot that picks and packs items is contesting The Amazon Robotics Challenge.

‘CartMan’, which was built by a team of roboticists from the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision at QUT, will be competing against 15 other robots during the challenge in Japan.

“Our robot has a vision system to recognise specific items in a crowded container and a mechanical system to retrieve and stow that item into a shipping box,” said Dr Juxi Leitner, a roboticist from QUT.

“You won’t believe how hard is it to teach a robot to see a clear bottle of water among a bunch of groceries, or teach it the best way to pick up a bag of marbles.

“We opted to build our own robot from scratch — a three-axis Cartesian robot that acts much like a gantry crane you see at ports. With six degrees of articulation and both a claw and suction gripper, CartMan gives us more flexibility to complete the tasks than an off-the-shelf robot can offer.”

The centre’s team of 27 roboticists from QUT, the University of Adelaide and the Australian National University has invested more than 15,000 hours in the project.

Despite placing sixth in last year’s challenge — a significant achievement in this highly competitive field — the team is not resting on its laurels.

“We are world leaders in robotic vision and we’re pushing the boundaries of computer vision and machine learning to complete these tasks in an unstructured environment — we won’t even be told which items CartMan must pick and stow until just before our heats,” Leitner said.

“But I think we stand a good chance — the robot is robust and tackles the task in an innovative way we hope will give us the advantage.”

Unlike traditional retailers that use warehouses and distribution centres to ship products to stores, online retailers such as Amazon focus on fulfilment centres — facilities full of shelving, from which human workers literally pick and stow individual items in order to fill customer orders.

While Amazon has mastered using robots to move products around its fulfilment centres, picking and stowing items is the glaring gap in its automated logistics system. The global giant is banking on the challenge to unearth open-source solutions.

“Amazon, in its current form, isn’t likely to make a massive impact on Australia’s retail market because we only buy about 7% of our goods online, and because geographical distances and higher wages increase logistics costs,” said QUT retail and logistics expert Associate Professor Gary Mortimer.

“If Amazon can reduce the cost of doing business in Australia by automating the picking and stowing process, it could very well increase its market penetration.”

The centre’s team is sponsored by the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, Amazon Robotics, Osaro and QUT.

The Amazon Robotics Challenge runs from 27–30 July.

Image credit: Anthony Weate, QUT. Image courtesy of QUT media

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