Ocado CTO: Robotics research 'largely uninterrupted' by pandemic

Online delivery and technology company Ocado has continued its research into automation and robotics during the pandemic using its simulation environment.

Paul Clarke, CTO of Ocado, told technology conference CogX2020: “When lockdown hit at Ocado, all our researchers headed home and used the simulation environment to continue research.” That included taking 3D printers home with them. “We’ve been able to carry on our research largely uninterrupted,” he said.

The company is able to test its physical innovations in a “Digital Twin” simulation environment, which also allows it to take the risk out of trailing new technologies on the digital platform first.

Ocado has spent the last two decades developing automated grocery warehouses, staffed by swarms of robots. Its first automated “hive” warehouse opened in Andover in 2016, where robots move in a grid system to move groceries from storage to human pickers.

The business has a turnover of £1.8 billion and a loss before tax of £120 million, according to its full-year results for 2019. But as well as delivering food on behalf of supermarkets, such as its deal with M&S in the UK, it also builds robot-operated depots for other food retailers. Clarke noted the firm is in the process of building 40 next-generation warehouses across the world, each with around 3,000 swarming robots.

In July 2019, the company’s first robotic picking cell went into production in Erith, London. The robotic arm picks individual items for real customer orders. The company expecting the robot picked to be introduced more widely throughout 2020.

However, Clarke believes more could have been done to deploy smart robotics in response to the pandemic – not just for supermarkets – in terms of using drones to deliver the “last mile”. but also in the manufacturing of PPE and sending robots into places not safe for humans.

“I think there is more we could have done to prepare and now we must do that going forward.”