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Ocado Technology completes two-week self-driving van trial in Greenwich

Ocado Technology opens up about how self-driving vans could revolutionise grocery deliveries in urban areas in the years to come

Ocado Technology’s quest to automate as much of the online grocery delivery process as possible has entered a new stage, with the firm trialling the use of self-driving vans.

The vehicles delivered free groceries to local residents living in Royal Arsenal, Greenwich, during the two-week trial, which Ocado claimed could pave the way for self-driving cars to be added to its portfolio of delivery options in the years to come.

“We are always looking to come up with unique, innovative solutions to the real-world problem of delivering groceries in densely populated urban environments. This project is just part of that ongoing journey to be at the edge of what is practical,” said David Sharp, head of the 10x department at Ocado Technology.

In a blog post, the company said the project’s aim is to get a better understanding of how it can make the “last mile” of the online grocery journey easier and more efficient for people living in built up, urban areas.

“The trial gave Ocado Technology the ability to experiment with fresh ideas for the last mile of online retail – the stage that starts when the goods leave the facility for delivery and ends when they are placed securely in the hands of customers,” the company said.

“We were also able to learn more about the next steps needed before driverless deliveries could become an efficient proposition for our Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) partners.”

Ocado worked with the Gateway Project, whose stakeholders include TRL, Digital Greenwich and Telefonica, on the trials.

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The self-driving vans are built by Oxford Robotic’s spin-off, Oxbotica, and are capable of travelling up to 30km on a single charge, and can reach speeds of around 40km/h. 

With the help of Oxbotica’s Selenium operating system, the CargoPods (as they are known) are able to make sense of their surroundings and work out where they need to go next using data gleaned from lasers and cameras placed around the vehicle.

Each CargoPod features eight grocery storage compartments, which light up as soon as they reach the address of the person who ordered the delivery, so they know which one belongs to them so they can retrieve their shopping.

Another level of automation

Aside from delivering groceries to customers, the technology could also be used in the firm’s customer fulfilment centres to add another layer of automation to the way goods are transported to the sites, packaged up and then sent out.

“We are interested in the potential of adding autonomous deliveries as an option to our ever-expanding  the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) last mile portfolio,” the company said, in the blog post.

OSP is a proprietary technology platform the firm offers to other online retailers, allowing them to make use of the firm’s technology and fufilment capabilities to run their businesses, in the form of a managed service. 

“Obviously there are several external factors to consider before self-driving vans become a reality, but as OSP already includes high-performance automated warehouse systems alongside other cutting edge retail solutions, it seemed fitting to also explore self-driving technologies as a possibility.”

Trialling robotics

The project is the latest in a long line of endeavours Ocado Technology has embarked upon to reduce the amount of manual handling involved in getting its customers’ online orders despatched to their home addresses.

This has seen the firm trial robotics in its warehouses, as well as machine learning technology in its customer contact centres to help its staff speed up their response times.

Speaking at the AWS Summit in London on Wednesday 28 June, Paul Clarke, CTO of Ocado, said the company’s technology strategy is focused on freeing up the time customers have to spend on grocery shopping.

The use of automation, robotics, and machine learning drives efficiencies within the organisation’s internal operations, which in turn allows it be more flexible with the delivery options it can offer customers.  

“Our business is all about making the process of online grocery delivery as simple and convenient as possible for our customers. That simplicity is delivered through the application with huge amounts of technology and automation,” he said.

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