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MIT designed a soft robotic system just for packing groceries

Published Jul 2nd, 2024 7:59PM EDT
grocery bag
Image: pinkyone / Adobe

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Self-checkouts may take on a new meaning sometime in the future. Instead of having to scan the items yourself, a grocery packing robot may be able to do it for you.

It sounds like science fiction, and yet engineers at MIT have been working to develop a new soft robotics system that combines computer vision with a soft robotic gripper to help it bag up a wide range of items. The robot is aptly named RoboGrocery, and it was designed and engineered by MIT’s CSAIL department.

So far, the grocery packing robot seems to be able to pack a wide range of items, from soup cans, boxed meals, and ice cream containers to much more delicate objects like grasp, kale, muffins, and even bread.

The robot is able to grip these various items thanks to an array of pressure sensors in the fingers, which help the machine determine what product it is holding. It’s a two-part system, which utilizes a vision system to detect the objects, their size, and their orientation on the belt before picking them up.

From there, the grasper on the grocery packing robot picks up the items slowly by touching them, determining how much pressure it needs to exert, and then carefully lifting the objects so that it can bag them. The machine is even able to determine where these delicate items should go in the bag—so you don’t have to worry about your grapes and bread getting crushed by your soup cans.

This is a huge step forward in bringing robots to more public places like grocery stores. While the idea of robots replacing humans has long been a concern, we’re still likely years away from anything like this being viable enough to actually appear in a store anywhere.

Even then, it’s really interesting to see what the engineers and scientists at MIT are cooking up. In the past, they’ve even found a way to turn concrete into an energy-storing supercapacitor by adding just one cheap component. Details of the robot’s design and its tests can be found in a new paper published by the engineers behind its creation.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.