The British online retailer Ocado is developing a robot designed to recognize, pick up and pack up to 50,000 grocery items. The company filed an application to the US Patent and Trademark Office, describing the device as two robots systems mounted on a frame above the merchandise stacks. This, they say, will avoid the need for aisles in the warehouse and will allow Ocado to fit more products into a smaller place, reducing costs and improving efficiency.

The company said “Ocado is always looking for ways to enhance its customer proposition through the development of industry-leading and proprietary technology. As a result, we file a number of patents each year but we may not choose to utilize everything that we patent. As the business grows in scale, we will continue to grow our workforce with a focus on providing the best and most efficient service to our customers.”

Ocado’s current Order Storage Retrieval machine, where partially or fully completed basket  are sorted, depends on human staff. Photograph: David Levene/The GuardianOcado’s current Order Storage Retrieval machine, where partially or fully completed basket are sorted, depends on human staff. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Ocado has been investing heavily in new technologies to enhance the working place and improve efficiency and costs since its inception in 2000 by three former Goldman Sachs bankers. At the time of the company's founding, automated warehouses had been in use for a long time; Ocado still uses a variety of robots in its operations. Even people working there are guided by digital technology to ensure efficiency. However, existing technologies are based on the movement (removal and position) of containers from stacks. The mechanism to do this is very expensive, so the technology is seldom used nowadays.

The Ocado patent states that their new system makes use of two independently operating robots to “remove a target container quickly and with minimum use of resources”. This, they believe, makes the system practical and low cost. The company now wants to license and sell the technology to other retailers overseas. This is the reason for a U.S. patent.