IoT overload: Check out the most densely packed mobile network in the world

Ocado's networking challenge is akin to controlling the movements of all the aircraft that fly into and out of London's Heathrow Airport in a day--at the same time.

You want frozen shepherd's pie delivered to your doorstep? Ocado's got you covered.

The company is the world's largest internet grocery store, shipping something like two million items every day to customers around the UK. That's a metric (imperial?) @#$% ton and an extraordinary logistics accomplishment. It's also a huge networking problem.

Specifically, synching the thousands of fast-moving machines that need to work together to within a fraction of a second to zip hundreds of thousands of crates around Ocado's warehouses is a complete nightmare. Need a useful metaphor? How about trying to control the movements of all the aircraft that fly into and out of a busy international airport in a single day - but all at the same time while they're circling within a mile of each other.

The company is kind of like Google for groceries--all about the fast shipment and the latest in automated warehouse solutions, but so far Ocado's logistics infrastructure has been hampered by the natural limits of what its fulfillment warehouses's networks can handle. They want to crank it up to 11, but they're stuck idling at a 3. There's just too much data, too much telemetry.

To speed things up, Ocado, which is investing heavily in new automation and logistics tech, as I've written, recently brought in technology design firm Cambridge Consultants, the crew responsible for a cool fruit-picking robot. The engineers at Cambridge Consultants had an idea. Why not turn one of Ocado's warehouses into the most densely packed mobile network in the world?

That's just what they did. Existing mobile communications technologies didn't offer the real-time control or scalability that Ocado needed to get a bajillion units of bangers and mash out the door. The Cambridge Consultants team decided to build a system based on 4G telecoms technology deployed in the unlicensed 5GHz Wi-Fi band.

The test network has enabled Ocado to control 1,000 machines, communicating with them 10 times a second, all within an area the size of an Olympic swimming pool. It's like an IoT wet dream.

The most interesting part is that the innovative wireless solution is scalable, able to handle 20 times the number of movements. As it works in licence-free spectrum, it can be deployed quickly anywhere in the world. As well as logistics, the system could potentially be used to control fleets of semi-autonomous vehicles at sites such as factories, construction sites and airfields.

Ocado is the intellectual property owner on this one and has filed a number of patents for this new technology. Just another example of a giant retailer becoming a technology company.