Why remote-control machinery is just the start
“Don’t break the car, it belongs to my son!” In 2013, Ericsson Research’s Cristian Norlin and Marcus Gårdman made tracks toward the first working prototype of a remote-controlled excavator – operating wirelessly through a mobile network. From the humble yet ambitious origins of a simple toy car, an iPhone attached to the roof and a local network, this idea culminated in an innovative partnership between Ericsson, Volvo Construction Equipment and Telia – laying the groundwork for a fully-operable, remote-controlled excavator on Sweden’s first industrial 5G network in Eskilstuna. This is their story.
In 2011, the world watched in horror as the events of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster unfolded. In the years that followed and today even, the clean-up and decommissioning work continues to place hundreds of workers at risk, operating across remote areas. As researchers into disruptive technologies, this got us to thinking: What if we could connect technologies which would allow industries to operate remotely around the world while keeping their workforce in a safe, central location?
Almost a decade on, this embryo of an idea is leading us in to a new era of industry.
Remote-control machinery: where the story begins
As a researcher, our way of working predicates that you're constantly thinking of ways to improve the world around us. Our approach is to stay a step ahead of change and, in effect, predict what will happen next. This fosters a culture of innovation that informs what we do, and how we do it. And the results speak for themselves. Many of the things which we develop are often the result of a bold and courageous approach.
Back in 2013, we were exploring future technology areas for Ericsson. Part of this research led to us exploring different ways to think about future communication networks, such as 5G. At that time, the hype surrounding 5G had already begun. Everyone was talking about 5G, yet no one could really explain why we needed it. So, we set out to find an answer.
This way of thinking led us to the concept of remote-control machinery over great distances. At the same time, there were other key industry players who were thinking along the same lines, one of whom was Volvo Construction Equipment. In 2014, we agreed to team up, thereby doubling our efforts.
Progress quickened. We gave our toy excavator an upgrade and, in 2015, developed a very high-end prototype of two fully-operational, remote-controlled excavators over a local network – one on site at MWC in Barcelona, and one 2,500km away in snowy Eskilstuna, Sweden. Check out this video we did down on the floor four years ago:
Back then, we were running on 4G, of course, and we pushed the network to its limits, however we knew we were onto something. The demo showed what you could do with state-of-the-art technology at the time and emphasized the need for a new kind of network. It was important for us to make this issue tangible for industry stakeholders. After all, it's difficult to show the effects of millisecond latency in a PowerPoint. To sit in a chair and drive something thousands of kilometers away, through 360-degree stereoscopic VR vision, can really change perspective. You can literally feel in your hands the need for a completely new way of thinking about mobile networks.
By pushing and pulling the way we thought about mobile networks at the time, we were defining the criteria for future 5G.
Putting the spotlight on industrial 5G
Ericsson's excavator concept was one of the first use cases which moved away from the consumer and really put the spotlight on industrial 5G. We found that industry had been struggling to engage with the potential of future mobile networks. So, through remote-control machinery, we could actively probe and stress-test the way industries thought about future mobile networks – something which continues to this day.
Obviously, we can't attribute this ongoing conversation to our project alone, but it certainly gave momentum to a different way of thinking. Adjacent to this concept, Ericsson began collaborating closely with numerous industry stakeholders across the world, from mining, construction and other industries. The PIMM (Pilot for Industrial Mobile Communication in Mining) initiative, for example, was founded shortly after as a joint collaboration between mining, telecom and automation industries to explore the potential of mobile networks in mining.
For us, remote-control machinery is still just the tip of the iceberg. The potential of a new way of thinking can invigorate new concepts such as industrial automation and machine learning. For example, when we talk about the excavator use case, the data which the network receives from the driver can be used for machine learning – to teach the machines how to operate more efficiently. Of course, this can only be achieved through joint high-level collaboration and exploration across industries.
Read more about Ericsson's mining automation initiative with Boliden.
The ripple effect of a great idea
As a researcher at Ericsson, people tend not to believe us when we talk about the things which we believe will be possible in five to seven years' time. That's because, unlike most, we spend all of our time thinking about the future. That's why it's important to be courageous and creative when exploring an idea.
Such as with this use case, these kinds of concepts usually derive from a collaboration between disparate and unexpected competences. Our team, for example, consists of creatives, engineers, designers and other competences. This particular idea actually came from spending a week of collaboration with other creatives at the Fabrica institute in Treviso, Italy (of course, we also collaborated immensely with colleagues at Ericsson and Volvo CE). At Fabrica, we were able to look toward the future with people who weren't from our discipline – who don't see the world in the context of mobile networks.
This "outside-in" perspective cannot be underestimated in these kinds of processes. It can offer novel insight away from the haze of potential limitations and lay the foundation for a ripple effect which extends far beyond what is initially intended. Throughout this project, for example, we found that a certain percentage of Sweden's nuclear energy is used to air condition mines after explosions, to ventilate the area before workers can enter. Of course, something such as remote-control machinery could potentially mitigate this entire process – something which we hadn't initially considered.
Similarly, throughout the concept phase, we placed a lot of focus on tangible business aspects, such as uptime and efficiency. Yet, when we began collaborating with Volvo CE, we found that they placed considerable emphasis on the human aspect. For example, when we spoke to Volvo, we found that the wider industry can sometimes struggle to hire skilled workers in remote locations. Of course, young people want to live in towns and cities. So, the idea that you could apply your skills remotely from a well-inhabited location would naturally change the whole dynamic of employer branding. This is just one of many thousands of benefits of a great idea.
As for the next five to seven years? You'll have to continue reading The Ericsson Blog to find out.
Find out more about future industry
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