World first in radio design

Technology

  • Date 10 Feb 2016
  • Sectors Technology

Ocado is the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer – shipping more than two million items every day to customers around the UK. The technology breakthrough is enabling Ocado to control 1,000 machines, communicating with them 10 times a second, all within an area the size of an Olympic swimming pool – maximising warehouse efficiency. The innovative wireless solution is also scalable – so could potentially handle 20 times the number of movements.

It’s a challenge on the scale of attempting to control the movements of all the aircraft that fly in and out of London’s Heathrow Airport in a day – but all at the same time and while they’re circling around within a few kilometres of each other.

“It was clear early on that no technology existed which would do what Ocado needed,” said Tim Ensor, head of connected devices at Cambridge Consultants – which has one of the world’s largest independent wireless development teams. “That meant they needed to create a completely custom solution to achieve the required performance – but do so in a way that had a manageable risk profile and in the minimum amount of time. They engaged us to help them achieve this.”

Existing mobile communications technologies did not offer the real-time control or scalability that Ocado needed. The Cambridge Consultants team identified that a system based on 4G telecoms technology deployed in the unlicensed 5GHz Wi-Fi band gave the best chance of achieving Ocado’s goal of co-ordinating thousands of fast-moving machines to within a fraction of a second.

“Our expertise in 4G system development and familiarity with available platform technology allowed the joint Ocado and Cambridge Consultants team to develop a solution very quickly and with minimum risk,” said Ensor. “We created a system based on the principles of 4G but which can support 1,000 devices from a single base station – over 10 times more than is usually possible. At the same time, we needed to ensure it met the requirements of operating in licence-free spectrum. It is the first time this has all been done with 4G technology.”

The new wireless control system provides Ocado with a guaranteed connection 10 times a second to each of 1,000 machines per access point – all working within a 50-metre radius. As it works in licence-free spectrum, it can be deployed quickly anywhere in the world. As well as logistics, the system could potentially be used to control fleets of semi-autonomous vehicles at sites such as factories, construction sites and airfields. Ocado is the intellectual property owner and has filed a number of patents for this new technology.

‘This revolutionary wireless development work from the Ocado and Cambridge Consultants collaboration is a crucial part of the advanced, proprietary automation which will power our next-generation warehouses and those of our partners,” said Mark Richardson, operations director at Ocado. “We set out to create a groundbreaking platform for online retailers – the Ocado Smart Platform – to push the boundaries of efficiency, modularity and scalability. Working closely with the Cambridge Consultants team has enabled us to make our ambitious vision a reality.”

Cambridge Consultants and Ocado will be discussing the breakthrough technology at Mobile World Congress, February 22-25, at Fira Gran Via in Barcelona, stand 7B21.

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