IoT manufacturer Robustel has recently been writing about the growing adoption of Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs) around the world, in use cases such as delivery robots or for spraying disinfectant. 6GWorld caught up with James Mack, their VP of Marketing for APAC, to find out more about the drivers, pressures, and the story behind the story.
6GWorld: James, you’ve been very bullish about the spread of AGVs. Meanwhile, driverless cars are really very much still a project in development, as per this article. It would be good to understand where you see the main differences between these technologies and why AGVs are taking off at the moment.
JM: I think the main differentiating factor is the use of public infrastructure. At present driverless cars are limited to using existing road networks, which means they are sharing road space with the public. This opens huge amounts of risk, which means insurance, liability, risk mitigation etc. All this creates barriers to rapid adoption.
6GWorld: You don’t see similar risks hindering the AGV market?
JM: There are a few factors that put AGVs ahead of driverless vehicles:
There are fewer restrictions on deployment. We’re seeing demand on privately owned land like factories, construction sites and mine sites where a robot can be used to perform tasks that are potentially dangerous to humans.
There’s also less risk to the public. AGVs at the moment aren’t traveling at high speeds like cars and weigh a lot less, so for things like local delivery services the risk to the public is reduced. For long-distance delivery this might be a different story. Cost of ownership is also a factor. AGVs can come in all shapes and sizes and can be constructed with considerably less resources and expertise than automobile manufacturing.
Finally, we are seeing a lot of adoption in AGV technology for consumer services from Asia, especially China, Japan, and Singapore. These countries offer a great testbed for AGVs because they are population dense, and already have an embedded culture of using technology for convenience so there is less education needed to push adoption.
6GWorld: Where do you sit in the value chain for a service like AGVs? It looks like Robustel should collaborate with the AGV builders for the gateways, but the Operating System [OS], device management and VPN services seem more designed for the companies using the AGVs.
JM: Typically, our solutions are used by companies selling an end-to-end or managed service to a customer. Because AGV technology is so new, there are a lot of smaller companies developing and selling or leasing robots to companies rather than large companies developing the technology themselves in-house (with the exception of major-tier tech companies). We work with the managed service providers on integrating our gateways into the chassis of their AGV and then our software helps them manage the router and, through our OS and VPN services, any sensors or devices connected to the gateway.
6GWorld: How does this relate to the kinds of demands you hear from IoT device makers and their users?
JM: AGVs really represent a new frontier in IoT. We’re seeing more “traditional IoT” reaching maturity. People have been connecting gateways and sensors to everything and anything, so now they are working on what to do with all that data.
AGVs represent a new problem because you are not just pushing data from a remote device to a cloud platform or server so that someone can make a business decision. AGVs are operating in “real world” environments where some decisions need to be made instantly, so now you either need a gateway with some embedded EDGE/FOG computing capability or you need a hyper fast low-latency solution like 5G, which hasn’t been an option until recently.
6GWorld: Moving beyond simply AGVs into the broader IoT environment, what do you see as the big challenges that still need solving in the next few years?
JM: For as long as I’ve been involved in IoT there have really been three key issues and even now they haven’t been completely solved by anyone:
Firstly, security has always been a concern in IoT, even when the data being sent/received over the internet wasn’t particularly valuable to hackers. Now we’re seeing more and more connected devices, with access to fast internet access like LTE/5G, the damage that can be done by malicious activity has massively increased. AGVs are a particular concern, as you have to consider the possibility that these robots out in the public could be hijacked and either their contents stolen or used to cause harm.
There is a huge pressure on the supply chain at all levels to make sure what is being provided is as secure as possible. For us, as a manufacturer, we need to make sure our OS is very secure and audited regularly by cybersecurity experts, and any available physical interfaces on the gateway can’t be tampered with. Then you have security requirements on the telecommunication side and software side as well.
Ease of use is still a challenge too.One of the longest standing complaints from real world customers about IoT is the difficulty of getting something that works exactly for their needs out of the box. Traditionally you would need to buy endpoints from one vendor, gateways from another, SIM cards from an MNO/MVNO and software from someone else and so on… Now we’re seeing more and more pressure on vendors and “IoT companies” to keep things simple and deliver a solution that can be understood not just by engineers but by stakeholders at all levels.
The IoT market is a fantastic spectator sport at the moment: Incredible amounts of merger & acquisition activity happening on a regular basis, start-ups are still getting access to lots of VC funding, and established providers are being rolled into super-entities as everyone races to provide a “full stack/end-to-end” service.
Thirdly, availability of coverage. Internet access is the driving factor behind IoT. Where this was traditionally the realm of cellular or fixed-line services, we’re now seeing new and innovative technologies coming into play like Low Power Wide Area (LPWAN) networks and satellite connectivity becoming more cost effective.
With the introduction of 5G there is the promise of not just increased coverage and availability but also the ability for major entities to deploy their own private networks using leased or purchased spectrum. In countries like Australia and Canada, with huge areas of geography with little to no population, these technologies will become critical to power remote operations like mining and other primary industries.
6GWorld: Often it seems as though technology capabilities appear well ahead of the mindsets or business structures necessary to take advantage of them. Do you see new ways of doing business, or thinking about the services/business models deliverable from IoT that you feel might become widely adopted?
JM: Traditionally the most successful use cases for IoT have all really been driven around saving money, by making processes more efficient through insights provided by remote data or to replace a human activity. Now we’re seeing new business models forming which are more focused on generating additional revenue from monetising the data collected from IoT devices.
High-speed internet connectivity like 5G has exponentially increased the number of endpoints you can connect to a single gateway and the amount of data you can transmit back to a server or application. This means that something that was originally set up for a single purpose can now be augmented with additional marketable data.
A real-world example of this would be the digital signage market. When you start to combine digital signage with applications like counting people passing by, and even environmental factors like weather monitoring, these platforms can now create “bidding wars” between their customers for the most popular billboards and the most popular time of day. A hypothetical revenue model with AGVs might be providers re-selling things like route data, environmental data and heatmaps/people counting data to government, council[AG1] or commercial businesses.
6GWorld: Telcos are being put under pressure to make sure that future networks use a fraction of the energy they do today… even though they may have many times the number of connected items. Does that pressure to be more sustainable feed through into your work, and if so in what ways?
JM: Definitely. We’re working with two competing factors. The telcos – particularly the engineering staff – want us to offer the latest technology because it’s more efficient and less strenuous on their network. While a technology like 5G is efficient at a network level it is very demanding in terms of cooling and processing, which means we need to offer larger housing and more demanding CPU/RAM inside the device.
Meanwhile the market is looking for the most cost-effective way to do business, which is very rarely the latest technology. The demand here is typically reducing complexity and power consumption, which at the moment 5G is not necessarily helping with.
6GWorld: We’ll have to wrap up soon[AG2] , but give us a sense of what’s coming in IoT. What’s the most exciting shift in the medium to long term (call it five to ten years) that you’re looking forward to engaging with?
JM: Personally, I’m really interested in solutions that focus on sustainability and seeing how IoT technology can be used to combat the looming climate crisis. Living in regional Australia and seeing the devastating impacts of the 2019 bushfires to communities and native fauna really brought home the need for remote monitoring and sensing, not just for early warning for emergencies but to help facilitate active regrowth and reducing the carbon output from businesses. AGVs and drones are going to play a huge role in IoT for precision agriculture practices, facilitating a reduction in the carbon footprint of farming from so many different factors, whether it is the more efficient use of machinery or using sensors to provide an optimal environment for livestock, which reduces the emissions from unhealthy animals.
Alex Lawrence is Managing Editor at 6GWorld. His mission is to bring together stakeholders from across industries, countries and disciplines to make sure that, as technology evolves in the coming decade, it’s meeting the changing demands of society, government and business.
He has been involved as a professional nosy person in the telecoms sphere since 2004, with short detours through industrial O&M and marketing.
If you’d like to talk to Alex about your ideas or projects he’d love to hear from you. @animalawrence or firstname.lastname@example.org.