Ocado says its advanced unlicensed spectrum-powered 4G network can help firms in other industries
Online grocer Ocado has installed what it claims is the world’s most advanced and dense mobile network at its warehouse, helping to deliver two million items to customers each day.
The network, created by partner Cambridge Consultants, was seen as necessary because existing architectures could not offer the real time control and scalability desired by the retailer.
The use of LTE and 5GHz unlicensed spectrum guarantees a connection, allowing Ocado to control 1,000 machines and communicate with each ten times a second within a 50 metre radius.
“It was clear early on that no technology existed which would do what Ocado needed,” said Tim Ensor, head of connected devices at Cambridge Consultants. “We created a system based on the principles of 4G but which can support 1,000 devices from a single base station – over 10 times more than is usually possible. At the same time, we needed to ensure it met the requirements of operating in licence-free spectrum. It is the first time this has all been done with 4G technology.”
Ocado, which has its own technology unit, says the network could be used to control fleets of semi-autonomous vehicles in factories, construction sites and airfields. The system can be scaled up to handle 20 times the number of movements and the use of unlicensed spectrum means it can be deployed in other countries easily.
“We set out to create a groundbreaking platform for online retailers – the Ocado Smart Platform – to push the boundaries of efficiency, modularity and scalability,” said Mark Richardson, operations director at Ocado. “Working closely with the Cambridge Consultants team has enabled us to make our ambitious vision a reality.”
The use of unlicensed spectrum for mobile communications is a contentious one. Mobile operators have been trialling licence assisted access (LAA) technology, which pairs licenced LTE airwaves with unlicensed 5GHz spectrum to boost 4G signals using the LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) standard.
Ericsson has already released software to its operator customers that enables LAA, while Huawei believes the technology will boost the performance of small cells. However Wi-Fi is the primary user of the 5GHz band, leading to concerns LAA could affect wireless coverage. Operators have denied this and believe the two technologies can co-exist.
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