The greatest foe of Dr Who – the BBC TV's stalwart low-budget time traveller – is of course, the Daleks. These intergalactic space nazis terrorised generations of children despite being armed with a ray gun shaped like an egg whisk, having only one eye, which was on the end of a big stalk, making it horribly vulnerable, and gliding around on little wheels that make it impossible to climb stairs. Also, of course, their ability to interact with objects was severely limited by the fact that their 'arm' was a plunger on the end of a telescopic pole. Yes, yes, I know the modern Daleks have fixed all these issues. Just go with it.
Anyway, the reason I mention this is that Ocado, the online shopping service provider that works with grocery retailers to deliver their wares, has just updated its robots. What it's come up with involves one robot that scurries around on little wheels and looks like it would really struggle to get up stairs, and another one that is equipped with, yes, a suction cup on a telescopic arm. But far from being laughably inadequate, this robot plunger arm could revolutionise how your online groceries reach you.
This is bad news for people who work in warehouses. Ocado says its new Smart Platform, as it's calling it, will slash labour costs by 40%. However, the Dalek army will also be able to 'meet the full range of customer missions faster and shorten lead time deliveries for a larger proportion of online grocery purchases. In other words, long waits for deliveries and high minimum order values could soon be EX-TERM-IN-A-TED. Ahem.
Behold the magic at work. There's another video at the bottom, showing the bots packing crates. Pretty cool, if you like that sort of thing.
To achieve this, Ocado wishes to roll out a new breed of robot-friendly factory. There, the new 600 Series bot will whirr about on 'dramatically lighter grids'. This is also rather like the original Daleks, who were only able to navigate on metal floors specially made for them, on their home planet Skaro. Who were these floors made by? We may never know.
Even more impressive than the 600 Series, however, is the Robotic Pick. There are already plenty of robots that can scurry around with a backpack full of online shopping items. However, they have all previously needed humans to a significant degree when it comes to loading and unloading them. That's because robots are stupid and clumsy, and just because you've taught them to pick up avocados without bruising them, doesn't mean they'll be able to grab a coconut or a large packet of toilet roll.
The Robotic Pick, however, is seemingly able top pick up just about anything and load it into its helpful 600 Series pal, who then whisks it off to be packed into bags. Ocado's messaging isn't entirely clear here, but this bit is presumably done by a human. If you've ever observed certain, allegedly sentient, humans trying to bag things up at a self-service checkout, you can imagine how hard non-sentient robots find it. However the filled bags are then loaded by the bots, putting an end to another job previously done by humans. Sorry humans.
Ocado is extremely proud of the Robotic Pick. Its little suction cup 'hand' is able to pick and pack 'tens of thousands of products of varying shapes, sizes, weights, and fragility'. It's been developed via a combination of 'machine vision, deep reinforcement learning and advanced sensing'.
Ocado says the 600 Series bot is 'the world's lightest and most efficient grocery fulfilment bot'. More than half of its parts are 3D printed, making it cheaper to build and operate than its predecessor as well as being 'ultra-energy efficient and high performing.'
Both the 600 Series and the grid it zooms around on are significantly lighter and faster to build than what was previously possible, meaning the Ocado Smart Platform can be installed in buildings that are simpler, cheaper and smaller. This is potentially extremely significant, making the last leg of the groceries' journey – ie: to your house – much simpler and more cost effective.
The less energy-guzzling 600 Series bots also mean new sites will require 'less chill equipment.' I don't really know what that means; I just thought it was a funny phrase.
The robots are the sexy part of Ocado's Smart Platform, clearly. However perhaps the cleverest part of all this is that the increased automation facilitates Ocado Orbit, 'the world’s first Virtual Distribution Centre.' Putting it as simply as I can, this means good can be delivered straight to a network of 'fulfilment centres' – normally the last leg of your groceries' journey from manufacturer to you – without having to go through a warehouse beforehand.
Ocado explains that, 'Manufacturers only find this cost-effective when they can deliver products in sufficiently large quantities,' so such centres have to be large. Ocado Orbit, however, uses 'AI and Machine Learning, in a seamless supply ecosystem.'
Okay, so this is also a bit reminiscent of Dr Who, where seemingly insurmountable problems are waved away via science that most people find incomprehensible. But in this case, Ocado is saying that AI and machine learning mean you can have a larger number of smaller warehouses that are nearer to where you live. Crucially, this will work without losing the full, supermarket-sized range of groceries, which used to require much larger warehouses. So large range; short lead times; better value. Who doesn't want that?
Ocado Smart Platform has been designed to be used by Ocado, but it's also offering it to any other supermarket that wants to dive in, thanks to yet another innovation, Ocado Flex. They'll be able to retain their own online shop and apps, while drawing on Smart Platform for order fulfilment.
This all sounds extremely exciting. Self-driving trucks and vans don't seem far off now, so an almost entirely automated shopping-delivery system could be within our grasp very soon. It's worth pointing out that last year, Ocado experienced a serious fire after three of its robots collided – something that even the most inept human employees are unlikely to do.
So while I won't get too carried away with possible visions of the future of shopping just yet, there's no doubt that Ocado Smart Platform is seriously exciting – which is more than can be said of most Dr Who episodes these days.