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3-Robot Pile-Up Leads to Warehouse Fire

It took nearly 100 firefighters several hours to get it under control.

I’m not sure what we love more – talking about advanced industrial technologies that will inevitably save time and money, or … when one of these highly touted technologies malfunctions and reigns chaos down upon those willing to be early adopters.

For the sake of this story, we’re hoping you’re in the mood for the later.

Ocado Technology is an arm of Hatfield, UK-based Ocado, a developer of software, robotics and automation systems for online retailers, and more specifically, online grocery stores. 

At the heart of these ecommerce initiatives is the company’s Smart Platform, which utilizes a combination of artificial intelligence, high-speed wireless communication, and robotics to fill orders.

The eight-wheeled bots that do the order picking resemble room service food carts that zip around fulfillment centers aptly named hives. Bins of products are stacked vertically, with the bot’s tracks constructed in a grid-like fashion that allows the machines to hover and pick the desired products.

The company says it can fill a 50-item order in minutes.

While watching these bots in motion is actually pretty cool, an incident last week at a warehouse east of London shows that there are definitely some bugs in these hives.

Apparently, some of the bots got their signals crossed, leading to a three-bot pileup. The crashed machines produced a fire requiring several hours and nearly 100 firefighters to get under control. The facility’s 800 workers were safely evacuated, but there were numerous bot fatalities.

The location’s 3,500 bots reportedly process as many as 150,000 orders per week. According to Ocado, the bot crash and subsequent fire had little lasting damage, but did close the location until earlier this week. 

According to a recent report on Digital Trends, the company is yet to explain what caused the robot crash, but it’s not the first time the company has had some hive-driven drama. In 2019 a bot charging station malfunction led to another fire, but this one burned down the entire building, costing the company an estimated $138 million.

Self-destructive robots – maybe they are becoming more human.

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