Do you shop for groceries online? Robots can put together an average grocery order of 50 items in five minutes – more than 20 times faster than a human.
Nearly half of all UK households now shop for groceries online and the weekly shop be about to undergo even bigger changes.
Ocado, the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer, is combining AI with the Internet of Things and robotics to radically transform how we buy our food.
For example, customers can already put items in their online baskets by using Amazon’s Alexa. Ocado’s AI knows exactly what type and quantity of products to add based on previous purchases.
Ocado also offers customers the option to autofill their basket, using AI to analyse previous purchases and select not just things they buy regularly, but also to estimate when more medium-term purchases need replacing, such as jam or mayonnaise.
The service can even filter out unusual or untypical purchases or quantities of goods, such as those for parties or Christmas.
While most customers still tweak the autofill service, there are already some who let the algorithm do their shopping. Ocado’s big goal is to build to convince customers that they never need to worry about the weekly shop again.
And then there’s the way Ocado are using AI to revolutionise its logistics and fulfilment operation.
At a site in Andover, Hampshire, a swarm of 1,000 robots race across a grid the size of several football pitches. Below them are 50,000 grocery products in crates, from which the robots select items to fulfil weekly orders.
The rectangular robots, which can travel at speeds of up to 4 metres per second, are equipped with artificial intelligence and capable of 4 million calculations per second.
This means that the robots can put together an average order of 50 items in five minutes – more than 20 times faster than a human.
Ocado is building a second robotic warehouse in South London that is due to open this year and will be twice the size of the Andover site. Additionally, in a sign of its global ambitions, it has in the past six months signed deals to build similar warehouses in France and Canada with other grocers.
Although Ocado’s warehouses are at the cutting edge of grocery retail, they still require the human touch. More than 200 people in Andover carry out tasks robots are not yet capable of performing, such as packing orders on to trucks.
When it comes to packing, a big problem is that most robots cannot yet handle soft and irregularly-shaped items such as fruit without damaging them. To tackle this, Ocado is working with universities in a European Union-funded project to develop robots capable of soft manipulation.
At the start of 2017 the company announced it had successfully used an air-pressurized rubber hand that could handle a wide variety of products without damage.
Ocado is also using AI to deliver its products. Last summer the company partnered with Oxford-based AI company Oxbotica to arrange the UK’s first driverless delivery of groceries, using an electric self-driving van to deliver groceries in Greenwich, south-east London.
When the van arrives at the right address, the compartment containing the relevant groceries lights up and the customer can open it to retrieve their order.
If the customer has trusted Ocado’s AI to select their groceries, the only effort he or she puts into the weekly shop might be opening the van’s compartment door.
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