The first self-checkout system was installed in 1986 in a Kroger grocery store just outside of Atlanta. While it took several decades for the technology to proliferate across the U.S., grocery stores are now firmly headed in the direction of automation. With this trend, robotic bagging seems to be the next logical step. MIT’s CSAIL department is at the forefront of this development, showcasing their new system called RoboGrocery.

RoboGrocery combines computer vision with a soft robotic gripper to bag a wide range of grocery items. To test the system, researchers placed 10 unknown objects on a grocery conveyor belt. The products included delicate items such as grapes, bread, kale, muffins, and crackers, as well as sturdier items like soup cans, meal boxes, and ice cream containers.

The vision system is the first to activate, detecting the objects and determining their size and orientation on the belt. When the gripper touches the grapes, pressure sensors in its fingers recognize their delicacy, ensuring they are not placed at the bottom of the bag. In contrast, the system identifies the soup can as a more rigid item, placing it at the bottom. This process mimics the careful packing many of us learned through experience.

“This is a significant first step towards having robots pack groceries and other items in real-world settings,” said Annan Zhang, one of the study’s lead authors. “Although we’re not quite ready for commercial deployment, our research demonstrates the power of integrating multiple sensing modalities in soft robotic systems.”

The team acknowledges that there is still room for improvement. Upgrades to both the grasper and the imaging system are needed to enhance the system’s ability to determine how and in what order to pack items. As the system becomes more robust, it could potentially be scaled for use beyond grocery stores, extending to industrial applications like recycling plants.

MIT’s RoboGrocery represents a promising advancement in the automation of routine tasks, bringing us closer to a future where robots play an integral role in our daily lives.

By Impact Lab