Ocado van

Smart cars need smarter roads

One of the many exciting parts of starting my new job at Ocado Technology has been the ability to go on a buddy route. For those who don’t work at Ocado, the buddy route offers new employees the option of accompanying one of our drivers on a delivery run.

Experiencing first-hand what it takes to get an order from an Ocado warehouse to a customer’s doorstep helped me form a few opinions when it comes to the future of transportation that I’d like to share with you.

Intelligent transportation at Ocado

Many people know Ocado from the brightly colored vans that travel the UK from one home to the next. However, not everyone gets the chance to ride in these vans or (literally) go under the hood (or bonnet, for my British readers).

Each Ocado van houses not only the different compartments needed for storing groceries but also a vast collection of sensors and embedded computing devices that stream information to the cloud in real-time.

Ocado Technology engineers have transformed these vans into a living, breathing network of IoT nodes that collects vast amounts of data about the UK transportation infrastructure. For example, these low-power embedded sensors constantly measure wheel speed, fuel consumption, engine revs, gear changes, braking and cornering speeds, bumps in the road, temperature, and other useful data. When correlated to the map of public roads in the UK, this information helps the Ocado Technology data science team figure out optimal routes for delivery so that drivers can actually fulfill the one-hour slot promise to customers.

The need for an infrastructure upgrade

After looking closely at various simulation models based on our route data, I believe we need to act more methodically about how we make cars smarter.

Implementing advanced computer vision capabilities is a step in the right direction for manufacturers looking to improve road safety. However, the self-driving cars of tomorrow may quickly find themselves stuck on the same congested roads we often experience today if the infrastructure doesn’t get a major upgrade as well.

If we want to fully realize the dream of drastically reducing (or even eliminating) road congestion in Europe and beyond, the computing we embed into our cars must be mirrored by a similar bump in the intelligence of our roads.

At Ocado, we’ve been building an infrastructure of connected vans which enables us to find the optimal routes I described earlier. Imagine if more (or all) cars driving on our public roads would have these sensors on board; we could then extend this concept to a larger scale and guide vehicles automatically on the best routes available. A simple sprinkle of smartness could make a big difference when it comes to driverless vehicles.

Routing map

Finally, driverless vehicles are going to have to be way smarter because they will have to share the roads with cars driven by humans. We therefore need to develop new communications protocols that enable cars (driverless or not) to talk to each other and to the environment around them (e.g. traffic lights). One example of such a protocol is the 4G-based network we’ve built for the robots in our warehouse; its properties could be extended to handle the low-latency vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications protocols needed by the automotive market.

The economics of self-driving trucks

Whenever someone mentions Steven Spielberg, people automatically think of movies such as E.T., Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, Jurrasic Park or more recently Lincoln. For me, one of the definitive Spielberg classics remains Duel, a 1971 film where a businessman is relentlessly pursued by the malevolent driver of a truck, resulting in 74 minutes of cinema glory.

What makes the movie particularly interesting for me is the way Spielberg cleverly suggests the truck has a will and intelligence of its own – making it perhaps the first self-driving truck to be captured on film. Fast forward to several years ago, almost everyone involved in commercial transportation starts to get serious about the prospect of self-driving trucks.

As someone who’s worked in the past with companies developing technology for autonomous vehicles and is now part of an organization that relies heavily on transportation to grow its business, I believe there are indeed many benefits to deploying self-driving trucks on our roads.

Ocado and transportation

Before I get to the above topic however, I’d like to give you a short overview of our operational model to set the scene for the second part of this article.

Before we can get customers’ groceries into Ocado delivery vans, they first need to be shipped to one of our warehouses – we call them Customer Fulfilment Centers (or CFCs, for short). CFCs are where large orders get split into smaller deliveries thanks to a great team of dedicated people and a high degree of automation.

For our suppliers, the most common way of sending large quantities of products to our warehouses is to employ commercial trucks.

In addition to the CFCs, we also use our own trucks to transport products to smaller local distribution centers called spokes. You can think of a spoke as a very small warehouse where a large batch of orders comes in and then immediately gets distributed to our smaller vans.

Delivery trucks and vans

The diagram below shows an overview of our entire distribution model and covers some of the points I’ve touched on in my introduction:

Last Mile infographic

You can imagine that between goods coming into our warehouses and our warehouses sending larger orders to spokes, quite a few miles need to be travelled before our van drivers knock on your door to hand you the order.

Truck meets technology

Any company involved in long-distance haulage can attest to the inherent inefficiency of single-truck deliveries. One way to improve haulage management is to organize vehicles in fleet-type formations: the leading truck determines the fleet’s route and speed while the others receive instructions through a low latency wireless connection.

Even though self-driving trucks would have a high degree of automation on board, human drivers would still be able to assume control under certain conditions (e.g. if they would need to enter or exit the platoon formation).

A perfect analogy to describe the relationship between humans and self-driving trucks would be the fly-by-wire feature present in most aircraft today where the pilot assumes manual control only in exceptional circumstances while the computers handle most of the hard work.

The advantage of having such a convoy is that trucks drive at consistent speeds and on optimized routes, which would help relieve congestion on many European roads.

Self-driving truck convoys can benefit their human drivers too. Compared to the daily commute of regular motorists, trucks are driven mostly on highways for hours on end, making for a very uneventful and tiring journey for the person behind the wheel; many truck drivers are away from home for extended periods of time and can lead a very sedentary lifestyle.

Finally, self-driving truck convoys could dramatically improve road safety by reducing the number and severity of accidents caused by commercial vehicles.

Challenges under the hood

Before we get caught in the self-driving hype, there are still quite a few challenges we need to address first. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the regulation needed to go from a few trials in remote areas to deploying these automated vehicles at a large scale. This will likely take years since routes can cover multiple countries; we therefore need to achieve consistency between the traffic codes and regulations of each territory in a region in order to implement a unified fleet.

Secondly, we need to develop better connectivity protocols that deliver the extended range, reliability and low latency required by the automotive market. These protocols must be able to handle a comprehensive list of common and corner case situations such as sudden changes in the road layout. At Ocado, we have developed a low latency system in collaboration with Cambridge Consultants: it works over the 4G standard and enables us to quickly coordinate more than 1,000 robots in a split of a second – you can read more about this project here.

Finally, companies need to be aware of the public perception when it comes to computer-controlled machines. There are potential security implications related to using these vehicles for other purposes than those they were originally designed for, including as weapons (hence my original reference to Duel in the introduction).

Overall, I think it’s important to remember that we are still some years away from fully automated vehicles becoming a familiar sight on our roads. In the meantime, more self-driving trials will probably get underway in Europe so try to keep your composure if the next time you look in your rearview mirror, no one appears to be behind the wheel.

It’s either that, or Steven Spielberg is working on Duel 2.

Are drones the answer to faster home delivery?

I remember a time when the word drone conjured memories of sitting next to a random stranger before a concert only to hear them talk endlessly to their friends about how much they loved the headliner, went to every single show they had every played, and bought every piece of merchandise they ever sold – complete with photographic evidence.

However, browse through the headlines dominating the news cycle of today and you will see the word drone mentioned for entirely different reasons. Indeed, everyone from Intel and Qualcomm to Amazon and Walmart is talking up drones nowadays.

Adding to the hype, a recent US federal ruling has made it possible for commercial drones to be used over populated areas without the need for a pilot’s license.

This sent drone enthusiasts on a PR mission to convince the general public that deliveries via drones are (a) imminent and (b) a very good idea. But beyond a few publicity stunts aimed at getting shoppers excited about the prospect of burritos falling from the sky, few have provided compelling answers to justify why drones should be the absolute future for home deliveries. In fact, if anyone took the time to speak with any serious drone manufacturer or business user, they would hear about a comprehensive laundry list of safety implications that need to be addressed before commercial drones can be used around people.

The last mile

Ocado has a large team of engineers working on route optimization for our delivery vans. In retail-speak, this part of the chain is called the last mile.

Previously used in telecommunications to refer to the final segment of the network that delivers services to end-users, the last mile is used by the retail industry to describe the final part of the supply chain that makes it possible for customers to receive their orders. Experts often describe the last mile as the most expensive, least efficient, and most problematic part of the overall delivery process.

The apparent logic behind drone deliveries is that they will solve many of the headaches associated with e-commerce, including the eternal inefficiency of the last mile process.

However, many choose to stay silent about (or blissfully ignore) two essential metrics associated with home deliveries: route density and drop size. These are incredibly important when it comes to the entire delivery process, regardless of whether you’re sending goods using a van or a drone.

Route density is the number of drop offs for a given delivery route; the drop size is the number of items delivered to each customer along a route. A look at the latest statistics from our analytics department shows that a typical Ocado customer spends £110 per order on average and our logistics department currently achieves 166 deliveries per van per week. Given that most customers place an order once per week, a delivery typically includes tens of products weighing several kilograms altogether.

Most drones struggle to carry anything above a couple of kilograms and have a limited range of 10-15 miles; that’s good enough for a burrito or a USB stick but not suitable for a crate of ambient, chilled and frozen products flown tens of kilometers from a delivery center into your backyard. These limitations affect both route density and the drop size and mean vans still have the edge over drones when it comes to last mile deliveries for the foreseeable future.

That doesn’t mean that the technology to lift goods into the air doesn’t have immediate applications for grocery deliveries; it’s just that drones will be part of the solution, and not the solution. A company might choose to handle small, top-up or ad-hoc type orders using drones for example (imagine something the size of your lunch being flown in via drone) while larger, weekly orders will still be delivered using the more familiar van method.

Ocado is leading the retail industry in efficiency when it comes to the last mile process and other logistics operations. We are constantly evaluating new ways in which we could extend our leadership position, including the use of drones and other types of robotics inside and outside of our warehouses.

February 9th, 2017

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Bot photo on the grid

When we were building the hardware architecture of the new warehouse in Andover, we realised we had developed a world first in radio design.

The new warehouse solution designed for our next generation of CFCs has thrown up lots of interesting technical challenges along the way. One of the first was how to communicate with over 10,000 robots concurrently.

More specifically, how do we get timely information on the locations of thousands of robots so we can efficiently control them? The answer lies in our unending striving for new and novel solutions to technical challenges.

Here is the story of how we taught robots to talk over 4G – and created a number of world firsts in the process.

Why Wi-Fi was a no-go

We started this project by studying the properties of Wi-Fi. The standard Wi-Fi network uses a distributed coordination function which is not a deterministic means of guaranteeing latency. The analogy often used is polite conversation at a dinner party: it is easy to have one single conversation at a table of two, much harder once you get to 12. Now imagine a state banquet; not everyone will have a chance to share their important information. There is provision in the standard for a point coordination function but nothing available on the open market supported this feature.

There is also the issue of scale, as most Wi-Fi access points (APs) can support a maximum of somewhere between 64 and 256 concurrent clients. Consider that we need to communicate with swarms of thousands of robots, talking to each ten times a second and with guaranteed latency. We needed to understand what this meant for the network design as well as how to accommodate it in an already busy spectrum plan.

Through our experience of existing systems, we knew we should enable a maximum of around 80 clients per AP and reduce the cell size to a very small area. This is similar to the approaches taken in high density deployments such as sports stadiums and auditoriums. However, unlike in those areas, the clients would be constantly moving and using the Wi-Fi network as their primary activity, rather than watching the sports game or concert. There is relatively little headroom above the bots, providing a further driver for many small cells.

Roaming would be required between the Wi-Fi APs – this is notoriously unpredictable. The best results we see in the real world are around 300ms, which would impact the command and control of traffic.

Another aspect to consider is that this approach would require complex planning and installation work for each warehouse, which would be expensive and difficult to maintain.

Ultimately, we found that Wi-Fi’s non deterministic performance would hinder our ability to develop an efficient real time control algorithm for the bots. Resolving this problem was therefore critical to the success of the overall project.

Working with Cambridge Consultants

We had a few ideas for solutions, but wanted to get a fresh perspective on the problem. Cambridge Consultants with their world class RF (radio frequency) and DSP (digital signal processing) skills were the obvious choice.

They also have the know-how and complete range of equipment onsite to manufacture small batches of the final product; in fact we learned a great deal from them about electronics manufacturing.

Base station image

The partnership has proven to be very successful because we produced a fully featured prototype within two years (it usually takes three to five). In addition (and maybe quite surprisingly to some), the initial system architecture we defined at the very start of the project remains unchanged.

The solution

The system we came up with takes advantage of modern wireless communication principles but has secret ingredients that tailors it to our environment. For example, it works in license-free spectrum so we can deploy it at a moment’s notice.

In fact, it’s the first deployment anywhere in the world to use the unlicensed 4G spectrum for warehouse automation. By making the system private, we were able to improve the performance and simplify overall complexity by minimising handshake and eliminating roaming aspects. The system guarantees a connection ten times a second to each of the 1,000 client hosts per base station – all working within a 150-metre radius.

Bot CAD

Like all extremely low-latency, real-time systems, we also needed to include features to provide redundancy. The devices have physical attributes such as dual network and power links and also logical tools to enable failover to hot standby units; this has enabled us to upgrade the base station firmware without impacting its operation. These tools also enable us to automatically recover from network and power outages, which has been invaluable during site commissioning tests.

Through this project, we’ve also bought Precision Time Protocol into the business; one benefit is that it enables very tightly synchronised log capture across multiple machines, which was beneficial during the development of the system.

Where next?

Building and deploying this system from the drawing board in only three years was impressive in anyone’s book but we haven’t finished yet. By designing this system ourselves, we’re free to alter and add features as we see fit. Soon we’ll be analysing how alternate MAC layers could help improve warehouse efficiency and designing a custom roaming algorithm optimized for our specific application.

This is only one of several wireless projects that are defining new applications for wireless technology – with OSP, we need to expand our capabilities in the RF domain. We’re recruiting!

Right now we’re looking for two team leads: one for traditional Wi-Fi, RFID and Two Way Radio systems and another person to oversee our Internet of Things applications team, which includes this technology. In addition, we’re hiring two wireless engineers for testing and product development.

Because there are many alternative applications for our scalable solution – factories, construction sites, airfields etc – our next task is to create a demonstration system to show off the technology to interested businesses.

Strategically, there are a number of areas we can improve to make the system work even harder, for example: miniaturisation, increased processing power, and beyond. It’s not in our nature to just say job done and stop innovating, and I’m excited to see where we can take the system next.

Adam Green, Principal Wireless Engineer

November 24th, 2016

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Globe of food

Although several analysts have recently downplayed their predictions for the consumer side of the Internet of Things market, IoT adoption in the enterprise segment is currently experiencing a boom.

One of the areas where IoT is set to make a huge impact is the online grocery retail sector. This comes at a time when more consumers are starting to understand the benefits of shopping online.

 

For example, Ocado has an active customer base that counts over 500,000 users; in addition, we’ve noticed that customers tend to stay loyal to Ocado over time thanks to a combination of great customer service and an easy-to-use shopping platform.

However, we believe there are several areas where IoT is helping us improve efficiency, reduce waste, and enhance the shopping experience for our customers. The two examples mentioned below illustrate some of the projects we’re actively working on and the initial results we’ve achieved thanks to the amazing team of engineers working at Ocado Technology.

Warehouse robots communicating over 4G

The Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) represents the most important breakthrough in online grocery retail. One of the many innovations implemented by the OSP is the use of robots for collecting customers’ groceries; you can find a diagram of how that works below:

Image of the hive

To make such a complex system of software and hardware function correctly, we needed a new kind of communications protocol to enable thousands of robots to rapidly communicate over a wireless network. We’ve therefore partnered with Cambridge Consultants to build a wireless system like no other.

This new network is based on the same underlying technology that connects your 4G mobile phone to the internet but operates in a different spectrum that allows thousands of machines to talk to each other at the same time. Each robot integrates a radio chip that connects to a base station capable of handling over 1,000 requests at a time. A typical grocery warehouse can thus use up to 20 base stations to create a small army of connected robots on a mission to ensure that your delivery gets picked in a record time of less than five minutes.

Moreover, since this system uses an unlicensed part of the radio spectrum, it could potentially be deployed for many other IoT applications that require low latency communications between thousands of devices. In addition, it can be deployed quickly too, as there’s no need to submit any form of paperwork related to standards compliance.

Equipping delivery vans with IoT sensors

We employ a large fleet of vans to deliver orders from Customer Fulfilment Centres (CFCs) to Ocado customers who purchase their groceries online. In order to manage this fleet efficiently, we equipped our delivery vans with a range of IoT sensors logging valuable information such as the vehicle’s location, wheel speed, engine revs, braking, fuel consumption, and cornering speed.

Vans at our Park Royal spoke

The vans then stream back this data in real time and also in greater granularity when they return to their CFCs. Ocado engineers then feed the data into our routing systems so the routes we drive tomorrow will hopefully be even better than the ones we drove today. We can also direct vans to park at the best possible location for a given time of day and take into account factors such as the current day of the week or school holidays.

At a time when inner city pollution is a growing health concern, reducing fuel consumption is not only a wise business decision but also an easy way to cut back on our carbon footprint. Furthermore, having a fleet of connected vehicles that is constantly exploring every corner of the UK enables us to gather lots of useful mapping information, including potential traffic jams and road closures.

This information could then be shared with other connected cars and help drivers manage their journeys more effectively. An example of such an initiative is the recent partnership between Mobileye, GM, Volkswagen and Nissan to create a set of crowdsourced maps that acts as the digital infrastructure for the self-driving cars of the future.

Alex Voica, Technology Communications Manager

September 22nd, 2016

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Paul at the meetup

Last week Ocado Technology had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the Data Science Festival organised at Google’s London headquarters in Soho. I was very lucky to be among the 200+ participants in the audience and would like to share with you a few insights from the Data Science Festival meetup as well as some information about how Ocado Technology uses machine learning to improve customer service and the overall efficiency of our Customer Fulfilment Centres (CFCs).

The meetup began with an introduction from Binesh Lad, head of retail for Google Cloud Platform UK & Ireland at Google. He talked briefly about how Google is rapidly expanding its cloud offering, offering Coca Cola, Best Buy, CCP Games (makers of EVE Online) and others as examples of customers using the Google Cloud Platform.

Binesh then jokingly played a video that introduced Google’s new, very exciting and definitely real product: the Actual Cloud (an April Fool’s prank that went viral a few months ago).

The second speaker of the evening was Paul Clarke, CTO at Ocado Technology. Paul offered a few quick facts about Ocado and how we have made online grocery shopping a reality over the last decade.

He then gave a few examples of how IoT, robotics and machine learning can be used together to improve the efficiency of warehouse operations and route optimisation for vans. Everyone in the audience was blown away by a sequence of short clips showing robots roaming around our new automation-based CFC in Andover, a real-time visualisation of the CFC in Dordon, and a live map of the vans delivering orders to Ocado customers in the UK.

Slide on screen of the new warehouse grid

Paul then moved to the second part of his presentation where he outlined how IoT is an unstoppable force that will usher in the true democratisation of hardware and software. Ocado Technology is already working on several IoT-related projects and is constantly adopting new ways of thinking into its product development cycles based on the innovation that is spurring in the IoT community.

Closing the evening off was Marcin Druzkowski, senior software engineer at Ocado Technology.

Marcin offered his perspective on data science and how Ocado is applying software engineering principles like code versioning, code testing and review, and continuous improvement to machine learning.

Marcin on stage

He also provided some useful tips for TensorFlow developers and outlined tools such as Git, Docker, Jupyter used by his team when dealing with data science. Finally, Marcin offered an example of how Ocado Technology is using data science to analyze customer emails and improve its customer service by using machine learning.

Marcin presenting a slide on TensorFlow

After the event was over, I had the opportunity to chat with some of the people in the audience over beers and (free!) pizza. Many said it was definitely an amazing presentation (a few said it was one of the best data science meetups they’ve attended so far!) and were very excited to learn that Ocado Technology is a pioneer in machine learning and data science.

Alex Voica, Technology Communications Manager

 

September 1st, 2016

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