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

Ocado was forced to evacuate the facility and cancel orders.


Robots are credited with boosting efficiency in some industrial use cases. But, as a major UK grocery service just found out, that doesn't mean they're not accident-prone like humans. Ocado — which competes with Amazon Fresh — has been forced to cancel orders for some customers after a robot collision sparked a fire at its warehouse in south-east London. The incident appeared to involve three bots on the grid and led to the evacuation of its Erith customer fulfilment center, the company said.

Ocado revealed that the fire triggered the site's sprinkler system, but was contained by its mitigation measures. Nonetheless, the London Fire Brigade was called to the scene to deal with the blaze, the company added. In all, Ocado said the damage was limited to just 1 percent of its grid, adding that it would take a week for the facility to resume operations.

The UK company's south-east London warehouse contains 3,000 robots that move at 13 feet per second when fetching grocery orders. Ocado also licenses its automation platform to others including Kroger in the US, which recently deployed the system at its 375,000-square-foot customer fulfillment center in Monroe, Ohio.

Based on the proximity of the droids and the speedy nature of their task, it's a miracle more clashes haven't occurred. As detailed in a recent CNN report, the bots — described as "washing machines on wheels" — move within five millimeters of each other on a grid-like system to collect items. Ocado even told the news publication "we basically play chicken with them: they go on a collision course only to divert at the last moment."