Life Tech Supermarket robots move from aisles to checkouts
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Supermarket robots move from aisles to checkouts

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Woolworths’ (occasionally creepy) in-store robots are widening their reach and Japan is employing robots that can pick up and restock shelves – hinting further at a bot-fuelled future.

The clean-up specialist bots have been zooming around select Woolies outlets since November, but they appear to have graduated from their trial period.

They have been spotted in stores in Newcastle and greater Melbourne in the past fortnight.

As well as identifying and taking care of spills or hazards, the robots cruise aisles to check shelf stock levels, feeding back the intel to its human co-workers.

Posted by Anthony Gracia on Tuesday, 19 November 2019

In Japan, the process goes one step further, in the form of a 2.1-metre (seven foot) robot with fingers.

The robot is controlled remotely by a human, who wears a VR headset to help the bot complete its tasks.

Japan is home to the world’s oldest population, which means it’s also facing an employment crisis when it comes to finding those workers who are willing and able to bend down low or lift things up high – like supermarket workers.

Enter: Model-T. The robot has been picked up by two of the country’s leading convenience stores chains.

It gets around on a wheeled platform and is fitted with cameras and microphones, as well as three ‘fingers’, which feed back feelings into the hands of the human pilot, all via VR.

“(Model-T) is able to grasp, or pick and place, objects of several different shapes and sizes into different locations,” the manufacturing company Telexistence’s Matt Komatsu told CNN.

Because it can be controlled remotely, the scope for saving on employee costs is huge – Komatsu even flagged it would open the door for companies to hire from countries with lower labour costs.

After a while, it’s hoped the robot’s AI will develop enough to allow it operate more autonomously, without constant human control.

There’s certainly no sign of the Model-Ts arriving in Australia any time soon (they’re still a fledging technology even in Japan) but it does signal a move towards more robot operations in grocery supply chains.

Earlier this year, Woolworths announced a $780 million project to build one semi-automated and one fully automated (automated means robots) distribution centres in New South Wales.

Although it will create some 600-odd jobs, the robotic nature of the centres will replace 1300 human roles with tech that can do the same work.

Coles has been making similar moves, investing in customer fulfilment centres – where our growing penchant for online shopping will be received, packed and delivered seamlessly to our doorsteps.