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Robot pile-up causes grocery delivery chaos for online shoppers

In line with futurists’ forecasts, robots are increasingly showing up in workplaces around the world due to their ability to operate faster and more efficiently than the humans they replace.

But a collision between three robots at a cutting-edge facility near London, U.K., on Friday, July 16, suggests that the much-talked-about robot takeover won’t be happening without the occasional major mishap.

The robots at the center of the snafu pick and sort online grocery orders for Ocado, a software and technology firm that partners with big-name supermarkets to build high-tech warehouses geared toward delivery services.

Following the three-way pile-up, the robots caught fire, resulting in a blaze that took around 100 firefighters several hours to bring under control. Eight hundred staff were safely evacuated from the facility, with no reports of injuries. The robots, however, didn’t fare quite so well.

The upshot? Three ruined bots, lots of burned groceries, and numerous customers receiving messages from Ocado saying their order had been delayed or canceled.

Ocado said later that the damage caused by the fire was limited to a small section of the facility, with “the vast majority” of the building still in good condition. It added that it hoped to be operating at full capacity in the coming days. The company is yet to explain how the robots came to collide, and what it plans to do to avoid the same kind of accident occurring again.

How we use AI at Ocado Technology

Ocado’s robot-powered system, shown in the video above, is a remarkable sight. It comprises a giant grid with numerous washing-machine-sized robots scooting along on rails, grabbing ordered items from crates before whisking them off to the packing stage of the process. The store hit by Friday’s fire uses 3,500 of the eight-wheeled robots to handle around 150,000 orders per week.

Worryingly for Ocado (and its customers), this isn’t the first time that its robotic technology has been at the center of a damaging blaze. In 2019, a malfunctioning charging procedure with one of its robots at another of its facilities caused a massive fire that burned down the entire building, costing the company around 100 million British pounds (about $138m).

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