A robot collision sparked a fire at the UK’s top online grocer

In some industrial applications, robots are ascribed an increase in efficiency. But as a major UK grocery company just found out, that doesn’t mean they aren’t at risk of accidents like humans are. Ocado – which competes with Amazon Fresh – was forced to cancel orders for some customers after a robot collision sparked a fire in its warehouse in southeast London. The incident appeared to have involved three bots in the network and led to the evacuation of its customer fulfillment center in Erith, the company said.

Ocado announced that the fire had triggered the site’s sprinkler system, but its mitigation efforts have contained it. Even so, the London Fire Brigade was called to the scene to fight the fire, the company added. Overall, Ocado said the damage was limited to just 1 percent of its network, adding that it would be a week for the facility to resume operations.

The UK company’s southeast London warehouse has 3,000 robots moving at 13 feet per second when picking up food orders. Ocado is also licensing its automation platform to others, including Kroger in the US, which recently installed the system at its 375,000 square foot customer fulfillment center in Monroe, Ohio.

Given the proximity of the droids and the speed at which they perform, it’s a wonder there haven’t been any more clashes. As described in a recent CNN report, the bots – described as “washing machines on wheels” – move on a grid-like system within five millimeters of each other to collect items. Ocado even told the news publication, “We’re basically playing chicken with them: they’re going on a collision course just to distract at the last moment.”

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