The attack of the robot grocers
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Ocado's robot swarm system for automated warehouse storage and stock retrieval; credit: Ocado

The Cambridge Wireless Connected Devices SIG meeting sparked wide-ranging discussion on provocative topics; from the tussle between low power wide area (LPWA) players and the cellular industry to robot swarms. Sam Fenwick reports

The Cambridge Wireless Connected Devices SIG meeting sparked wide-ranging discussion on provocative topics; from the tussle between low power wide area (LPWA) players and the cellular industry to robot swarms. Sam Fenwick reports

Emil Berthelsen, principal analyst at Machina Research, kicked off the event with a high-level focus on the IoT industry. He notes that in the case of enterprise IoT "one of the key things people are beginning to realise" is that it is not a greenfield market "90 per cent of the time enterprise IoT involves connecting to existing ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems and other similar systems. He adds that integration is a key challenge, "especially as very few existing ERP systems are ready for real-time information".

Berthelsen says that what he's seeing right now is more a subnet of things than an Internet of Things, because data sharing takes place between clusters of organisations in a piecemeal fashion rather than at a large scale with data being openly shared. A powerful incentive for data sharing among enterprises is that in many cases it's a win-win. He gives the airline industry as an example, as it benefits from the sharing of schedules, seat availability, and so on.

Dritan Kaleshi, 5G fellow at not-for-profit research and development organisation Digital Catapult Centre, highlights the problems caused by a disconnect between the designers of connectivity infrastructure (who focus on optimising data transport for efficiency, cost and power) and the eventual users of the data. To truly make the IoT a reality Kaleshi says it is no longer efficient to design a system for a single application or end user. Instead, he suggests that devices should provide context around the data they generate to allow it to be used by multiple end users.

"People would want to do this because you can sell your data for a bit more if the context is right for different [multiple] end users," he says.

Kaleshi gives the example of the SPHERE project in Bristol, which seeks to create a smart home monitoring system. He says that one problem while developing the wearable technology for the project was convincing the device engineers that it should transmit packet data (to provide more context) instead of a beacon signal.

He adds that it is better to start device design by thinking about the data and not the communications. The optimisation of the communications system should not be the only (or even the primary) concern, according to Kaleshi, and he believes that it is important that device infrastructure use existing data formats.

During the roundtable discussion Nick Hunn, co-champion of the Connected Devices SIG and CTO of WiFore, highlighted one of the challenges that's particularly faced by the IoT consumer market: "The manufacturer just

turning off the service [is a problem], because people are still selling all of these devices with a one-off price tag without thinking about the ongoing cost of supporting the service," he says. "The day they discover they're not making enough money from sales to do that they turn it off, and all of that hardware is bricked. That's going to be a big problem,"

Hunn drew attention to the narrow window of opportunity that the LPWA community has before NB-IoT devices hit the market. "At some point when we get narrowband IoT [NB-IoT] or something after it, it will get deployed in every base station, it will work and that will be a low cost pipe. But what LPWAN gives us over the next five years is the chance for people to be very disruptive further up that value chain: working out how you manage the IoT and analytics platforms. If people use that opportunity then by the time we get NB-IoT, it will just be a pipe that's going to have to match cost. If we don't disrupt in that timescale then we are probably going to give the IoT to cellular operators..."

David Sharp, head of Technology 10x at Ocado, revealed how the online retailer is using swarms of robots in its warehouses to automate the picking process.

He explains that Morrisons decided to use Ocado's technology, which helped Morrisons grow its online grocery delivery turnover from £0 to £200 million in a single year. Morrisons orders are fulfilled in the Ocado warehouse near Birmingham. In this warehouse customer boxes are moved around on conveyor belts. The belts take the customer boxes past those places in the warehouse where the relevant goods for each customer box are stored. Fast moving grocery items are picked straight from the pallets that are received from suppliers.

Medium turnover products, such as whisky bottles, are first manually decanted from pallets into storage boxes, which are kept in a huge automated storage area ready for automated retrieval when required. The storage and customer boxes are conveyed to a human picker who transfers the right number of products from the storage box to the customer box, guided by a screen showing how many items the customer has ordered. This set-up allows the pickers to remain at their station and means orders can be quickly processed and dispatched, despite Ocado having 47,000 items in its products catalogue.

However, Ocado's Andover warehouse uses a different solution: a proprietary robotic system instead of the 25 km conveyor belts and the huge automated storage area. This new system (shown above left) is much more space and time efficient. In contrast to the old system all the stock is decanted into the 'hive' for rapid automated storage and retrieval by the robots.

"We designed the grocery boxes so that they can stack on top of each other," Sharp explains. "You [stack them] so you get the densest storage of groceries possible, then we build essentially a rollercoaster for robots out of aluminium and steel on top. These robots drop a tray down to pick up one of the boxes, suck the box into their 'tummy' and then take it to where it's needed. The robot can put the box down and then a human takes the stuff from one box and puts it into another "one day a robot will do that [too]."

As conventional wireless protocols couldn't allow co-ordination between 1,000 robots on a single site, Ocado worked with CCL to develop a new protocol that delivers 3 kbps to each robot "which works out to 10 messages per second with fixed latency. All the communications fit into 10 MHz of 5 GHz licence-free spectrum (9 MHz with a guard band either side) and provide co-ordination between the robots within roughly a 100-metre radius. Sharp adds that the system could probably work at double this range, and notes that more base stations can be used to increase coverage.

"We use a system that's a bit like air traffic control "you clear a robot to go so far along the warehouse, and if all the other robots are behaving nicely you clear the robot to go a little bit further," Sharp says. "We've designed the radio communications protocol so that providing you get a message to a robot within [300 to 400 milliseconds] everything will continue to work. If a robot doesn't receive a message within [that time] we have to stop it and every robot around it that might be affected by it being off-path."

Sharp says that Ocado is now looking to supply its system to other grocers. For international customers Ocado will deploy the Ocado Smart Platform enterprise online grocery software that will run in the cloud (rather than on-premise as is currently the case for Ocado and Morrisons).

Patrick Mitchell, managing director at Mayflower Complete Lighting Control, gave a presentation on his company's remote street lighting control system. It's a network of streetlamp-mounted Zigbee nodes that communicate with LTE modem submasters (also mounted on street lights), which are equipped with light sensors. The submasters connect to the company's user interface and back office systems over cellular networks, allowing remote control of all the Zigbee nodes.

Mitchell discusses the Hampshire PFI lighting project, which began in April 2010 and involved the installation of 150,000 new lightbulbs and nodes. The system has helped cut energy consumption by half, resulting in £3 million in annual electricity cost savings and annual savings of £183,000 from the 50 per cent cut in associated CO2 emissions.

A streetlamp-mounted 2G / 3G modem Sub Master for remote lighting control; credit: Mayflower

He adds that Mayflower is looking to expand the system to support non-lighting applications. It is currently running a small- scale trial in Southampton with four units from Libelium that can monitor air quality, along with temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure. Mitchell says this approach looks more attractive than conventional systems because because the data collection devices are much smaller and more scalable than traditional data collection methods.

Other potential applications for the company's networks include:

  • Parking services (although this would require holes to be drilled in roads or cameras on posts overlooking parking spots).
  • Refuse collection, in which sensors would monitor bins' capacity and transmit the data to a hub to optimise collection route planning
  • Road gritting "use of thermal mapping so that gritters know when and where to operate. "¢ Beacon technology "beacons communicate with the public, allowing targeted marketing that could create new revenue streams for councils. The firm is working with software company Proxama on this.
  • Transport "the company is also working with Highways England on a smart motorways project.

Additionally, Mitchell says people have requested proximity sensing so that lights turn on in the presence of people and vehicles.

This feature may have made for uncomfortable reading for those concerned that we could soon be kneeling before robot overlords. However, I came away from the event with a sense that the IoT is starting to deliver the returns on investment that are needed for CEOs in vertical markets to sit up, take note and look at how their own companies can benefit.

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