Andover is an unlikely location for the home of a robot army, but somewhere in a non-descript warehouse 1,000 or more robots have been bred for a single purpose: shopping.
The robots are not owned by a shopaholic super villain but by online retailer Ocado, and represent the next stage in the firm’s efforts to revolutionise the billion pound online shopping market.
And they are not human-like supermarket workers ready to wander along brightly lit aisles loading trolleys, but instead ‘bots’ (see below) that skim along rails on top of hundreds of thousands of crates containing the 47,000 items Ocado stocks.
The diagram at the top of the page gives an impression of how the entire setup looks as the bots scuttle between the various crates that contain everything from milk and cucumbers to tea bags and cakes, grabbing a box and delivering it to a human who then packs the item for delivery.
The site is now in its final stages of testing before coming online and will have a huge impact on Ocado’s revenue generation.
Getting to this point was no easy task, though, and required the creation of technologies that didn’t previously exist, as Ocado head of technology 10x David Sharp explained to V3.
“We wanted a very large warehouse with very large numbers of robots roaming around and we needed to be able to control them all, sending and receiving messages several times a second to ensure they don’t collide and know where they are going,” he said.
“It turned out there were no wireless communications systems that could scale to those demands.”
Ocado turned to Cambridge Consultants which set about devising a system that could deal with the challenges. Tim Ensor, head of connected devices at the firm, explained how difficult this was.
“It’s an air traffic control problem: you have to avoid collisions, know where all the robots are and communicate with them all about 10 times a second within a 50 metre radius,” he toldV3.
Nevertheless they set about creating a wireless environment that uses 4G broadcast technologies in the unlicensed 5GHz Wi-Fi spectrum band, and dubbed it RCOM (Robot Communication).
Ensor claimed that the network is something of a world’s first given the scale and scope of what it has achieved.
“We think it’s the most densely packed mobile network in the world with this number of devices in such a small space, all moving around at high speed, and connecting to the backbone so often,” he said.
He underlined that is a great example of a “true industrial internet deployment” by putting sensors into so many objects and continually broadcasting information to and from a central control location.
“The robots also transmit information on how they’re feeling, if they’re overheating or not working properly and so forth,” said Sharp.
It wasn’t just the network that needed designing from scratch. The robots were also designed and developed in-house by Ocado which, perhaps unusually for a supermarket chain, has two in-house robotics teams.
“The robots that move boxes around the hive were designed and developed by an Ocado team working with some specialist manufacturers of complex electromechanical systems,” Sharp (pictured) explained.
“We use the word ‘hive’ to refer to the system comprising the stacks of boxes, the grid structure that keeps the boxes in place and the robots that move around on top of the grid, transporting the boxes around [shown in the diagram above].”
As if this wasn’t enough technology expertise for a supermarket, Ocado also has 700 software engineers, working on everything from supply chain to order routing and ‘cubing’, which works out the order in which products should be picked to avoid the risk of contamination or heavy items crushing smaller ones.
The Andover site is in its final testing phase, and Ocado is already starting work on another site in east London that will be three times bigger and have a staggering 700,000 crates. That’s a lot of robots.
“We’ll probably start with 1,000 robots and then gradually grow over time,” said Sharp, adding that the site will have “multiple thousands” of robots and contribute £1.2bn in revenue to Ocado’s business.
However, given what Ocado and Cambridge Consultants have created with the Andover rollout and the network technology it required, the two are now taking the system to market as a service that other retailers can buy and deploy.
“We want to replicate this in other countries and we’re doing that in a couple of ways. The first is to make the hardware designs available to retailers around the world,” said Sharp.
“The other is rewriting our software so it runs in the cloud and can be deployed anywhere in the world. This rapidly enables larger retailers around the world to get up and running.”
Sharp claimed that the Ocado system puts the firm far ahead of the competition as it has created a true online shopping delivery system, something that is far more sophisticated than other systems in use.
“Online grocery delivery is a bigger challenge than online sales, as the typical order has around 50 items, rather than just say a pair of a shoes or a memory stick,” he explained.
“This means Ocado was one of the first companies to go up against the challenge of operating an efficient, automated online grocery business.”
The platform Ocado has developed will mostly be pushed into retail markets, but Sharp did not rule out its spread to other online distribution environments in the future.
“We’ll start in food retail, because the software that we’ve got has had lots of energy and effort put into it for online grocery shopping, but we will look at other market areas where we can use the overall system,” he said.
So the next time you see an Ocado delivery van, remember that the contents were not picked by human hands but by an army of robots.
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