Microlocation and The Internet of Moving Things
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Anyone who loves reading science fiction (sci-fi) will know there’s a peculiar tendency for what is being portrayed as the future to become the future. Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are a recurring theme in scifi, particularly when the two are merged to become a credible representation of a human. Today, a whole slew of startups are working feverishly to make robots more intelligent using AI, which means they’ll actually become less autonomous, and begin working much more closely with humans.
As natural language processing (NLP) technology becomes more advanced, we’re now seeing office workers conversing with digital robotic process automation (RPA) robots. We’re seeing industrial robotics manufacturers like Bright Machines transfer the complexity from the machine to the digital brain – the software. All these efforts are an attempt to make robots better coexist with humans.
Location awareness is critical for robots to properly integrate with humans. If robots will soon be milling about our workplaces, we can’t have them bumping into people. They need self-awareness of their surroundings, and their owners need to know exactly where they are at all times.
Most robots spend half their computing power, energy, and cost just figuring out where they are. Tell any robot where it is, and you’ve done half its job for it, freeing its machinery to concentrate on getting its interesting work done.Credit: Humatics
One company is working on a solution that will allow us to track the location of a moving object with an accuracy of less than half an inch.
We first came across Humatics back in January of last year in our piece on What is a Digital Twin and Why Should You Care? In that article, we looked at a microlocation system that can track moving objects in three dimensions with less than one inch of accuracy at distances of up to 500 yards. Just last week, Humatics took in a $30 million Series B round from investors that included Airbus and Lockheed Martin, bringing their total funding to just over $80 million.
We could probably dedicate an entire article to the man behind the vision, Humatics Co-Founder David A. Mindell, who became an MIT professor after spending 15 years studying shipwrecks with the team who found the Titanic. In that capacity, he became intimately familiar with the importance of knowing the precise location of underwater robots. He then spent 20 years at MIT researching the relationship between humans and robots, a place where he now moonlights as the “Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing (STS), Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics.” In 2015, he added another title to his collection – CEO of Humatics.
Since we last looked at Humatics, they’ve started introducing products based on their microlocation technology. What the company calls “hair on fire use cases” are the low hanging fruit of industrial applications that their technology can initially address. For example, urban railways systems use a complex network of satellites and sensors to track the location of trains within a system. In places like tunnels, it becomes difficult to have visibility into what’s actually happening without using expensive legacy solutions.
Humatics is now positioning their “Humatics Rail Navigation System” as an alternative to the legacy technologies that provide visibility into areas where satellites cannot see – tunnels, stations, depots, and “urban canyons.”
They’re able to offer precise safety-critical positioning at high speed in all weather conditions. You may have workers near the tracks doing critical maintenance while trains are operating. Now, those workers will wear beacons which will communicate with a moving train at speeds of up to 200 mph (322 km per hour).
Humatics recently completed a successful pilot project to install their solution on 5.5 miles of track in New Yawk City’s subway system. The project was said to be “extremely successful,” and their recent funding round supports that conclusion. Being able to tell where all the moving parts are at any given time is essential to operating an efficient urban transport system of any kind. The accuracy Humatics is able to achieve today results from the technology they’ve based their entire solution on – ultra-wideband.
The usefulness of a microlocation solution is apparent. What’s not apparent is that Humatics has chosen the right technology for their own solution – a combination of proprietary software, proprietary hardware, on-board sensors, and complex algorithms that utilize a technology called “ultra-wideband.” Also referred to as UWB, it’s described by Wikipedia as “a radio technology that can use a very low energy level for short-range, high-bandwidth communications over a large portion of the radio spectrum.”
Up until now, microlocation technologies haven’t taken hold because they’ve either suffered from precision problems or have been too expensive to calibrate. Given the founder’s prior experience with precision location technology in one of the most demanding environments around – at the bottom of the sea – you can be sure they vetted all the technology solutions available and settled on the best.
The decision by Apple and Samsung to start including UWB chipsets in their phones is a good indicator of the technology’s future potential. For the Humatics Rail Navigation System, the use of UWB chips in smartphones could mean visibility into the movements of passengers.
An article by the FT on how Apple’s ultra-wideband chip could transform its products looks at patents Apple has filed that “show UWB connecting an iPhone to door locks, thermostats and even a dog collar.” Eventually, that connectivity might extend to a robotic lawn mower or an autonomous car.
Microlocation and Robotics
While the aforementioned train use case doesn’t involve robots, it’s not far off. The largest robot in the world is said to be the autonomous Rio Tinto AutoHaul train that operates out of a mine in BFE Australia. Eventually, it makes sense that all trains will be autonomous. When that happens, we’ll have large robots barreling through train stations that need to be aware of where the humans are and what they are doing. What Humatics provides is the tissue that connects robots to the outside world.
In his recent book on the myths of autonomy, Dr. Mindell argues that robots don’t become increasingly autonomous and independent. Instead, they will become increasingly intertwined into our lives. “Extreme environments press the relationships between people and machines to their limits,” says Dr. Mindell, and these are the sorts of places we’ll see the innovation first take hold.
The Internet of Moving Things
Initial applications for microlocation will appear in the same environments where we’ll first look to introduce automation – jobs that are dull, dirty, and dangerous. As technology drives down the cost of hardware and sensors, many new use cases will open up where locating objects with an extremely high degree of resolution and accuracy is in demand. For example:
- A distribution warehouse where people walk amongst autonomous forklifts and pallet jacks
- An airport where people wearing ear protection are constantly moving aircraft and luggage around using various vehicles
- A container port where ships, containers, cranes, and semi trucks all need to work together to move cargo
Microlocation technology works great for any fixed location where you need to accurately track the coexistence of humans alongside dangerous machinery, whether it’s working autonomously or not. It’s an entirely new area of Industrial IoT that one might refer to as the Internet of Moving Things.
Another science fiction concept floated around decades ago was the notion of smart dust. Someday, we’ll be able to spray objects with a coating of dirt-cheap sensors, each smaller than a speck of dust, which will tell us literally everything about the objects’ position, temperature, stress, motion, and whatever else you can think of measuring. Until then, microlocation solutions like what’s on offer from Humatics can capture the most pressing use cases for the Internet of Moving Things.