These Supermarket Warehouse Robots Have Their Own Mobile Network

A novel 4G technology lets Ocado’s bots talk in real-time.

Victoria Turk

Victoria Turk

Image: Cambridge Consultants

A new warehouse for British online supermarket Ocado will see 1,000 machines picking out groceries in a space no larger than an Olympic swimming pool, all the while communicating in real-time.

To achieve this, the robots use radio tech based on 4G; Cambridge Consultants, the technology company that designed the system, claims it's the "most densely packed mobile network in the world."

The new warehouse sees hundreds of thousands of crates of goods stacked tightly in a block. While an existing Ocado warehouse uses a conveyor system to move boxes around, the new system sees 1,000 robots on top of the piles of crates picking out goods from beneath them as they're needed.

"The benefit of this system is it allows us to store and move around those goods much more densely—so we need much less land to do it on—and much more flexibly," explained Tim Ensor, commercial director at Cambridge Consultants, in a phone call. "We don't have the issue where if one of the machines breaks down then there's a whole [area] of the warehouse out of operation; we can just send another robot to go and do the same job."

To keep control of so many bots at once, the company designed a 4G system that can communicate with the bots ten times a second. Ensor explained that other wireless technologies like wifi and Bluetooth probably couldn't manage that kind of workload. The system is therefore based on the same principles as the 4G network you use with a mobile phone, he said, but "rather than streaming video to a small number of people, it's talking to thousands of machines all at the same time."

A radio device in each robot speaks to a base station capable of dealing with 1,000 at a time. Ensor said it could be possible to deploy up to 20 or so base stations in one factory—so 20,000 bots in total. And as the 4G system uses part of the unlicensed radio spectrum, it could potentially be deployed anywhere.

This graphic shows how the robots lift crates out of a grid. Image: Ocado

Ensor insisted that the robotic warehouse tech isn't about automating human jobs, but making the already-automated tasks of storing and moving goods more efficient.

In the future, similar radio tech could be used for other semi-autonomous systems; Ensor gave the example of moving work-in-progress along a production line or controlling automated diggers on a construction site. "Wherever you've got materials that need to be moved around, or small fleets of vehicles that currently move stuff around," he said.

The system is currently in its final stages of testing at an warehouse in Andover, Hampshire, and represents what Ocado says is the "first installation of our next generation fulfilment solution."