Robots marching on warehouses

Thursday 24th November 2016
Ocado: smart hive robot

Ocado is revealing more details about the 4G-based wireless protocol used to control the robots powering its new warehouses. Highly automated these will be offered as part of a managed service entitled "Ocado Smart Platform" which enables international partners to build scalable, sustainable and profitable online retail businesses. The protocol marks the first deployment worldwide to use the unlicensed 4G spectrum for warehouse automation. It guarantees a connection ten times per second to each of the 1,000+ robots roaming around the warehouse - and all working within a 150 meter radius. 

While building a robot can be a relatively straightforward task, creating a swarm of thousands of robots and making sure you can communicate with every single in a tenth of a second is a whole different ball game. We have worked closely with Cambridge Consultants to develop an innovative system that takes advantage of modern wireless communications principles but has secret ingredients that tailor it to our specific environment. Since the protocol works in the license-free spectrum, we can also deploy it at a moment's notice in any location around the world. - (left) Adam Green, wireless team leader at Ocado.  Moreover, the wireless protocol can be repurposed for other IoT applications that mandate reduced communications delay between many devices: vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity for smart cars, air traffic control systems or large scale industrial systems. 

The protocol marks the first deployment anywhere in the world to use the unlicensed 4G spectrum for warehouse automation and guarantees a connection ten times per second to each of the 1,000+ robots roaming around the warehouse - all working within a 150 meter radius. 

Green was involved in the physical installation of the UK's first commercial WiMAX network, which provides broadband connections to educational institutions in the Brighton area which are unable to gain suitable speeds from a normal copper ADSL line.
The trial 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 (left) head of technology David 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.”


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