Autonomous Things

Machine learning service provider

Bindu Vijayan

“Autonomous things (AuT), or the Internet of autonomous things (IoAT), is an emerging term for the technological developments that are expected to bring computers into the physical environment as autonomous entities without human direction, freely moving and interacting with humans and other objects…”

To put it simply, Autonomous Things use AI and work unsupervised to complete specific tasks without humans. Devices are enhanced with AI, sensors and analytical capabilities to be able to make informed and appropriate decisions.  They (these devices) work collaboratively between humans and the environment and provide superior performance.  Today AuT work across several environments with various levels of intelligence and capabilities. Some popular examples of these devices are drones, vehicles, smart home devices among others. The components of Autonomous things – software and AI hardware are getting increasingly efficient. With improved technologies (and significantly reducing sensor costs), the variety of tasks and processes that can be automated are increasing, with the advantage of bringing in more data and feedback that can efficiently improve and enhance the benefits of autonomous things.

The technology is used in a wide variety of scenarios – as data collectors from a variety of terrains and environments, as delivery systems (by Amazon, pizza deliveries, etc.), medical supplies to remote areas, etc. Robotics used in the supply chain has proven it reduces/elevates the danger out of the hitherto human tasks in warehouses.  And they probably have the most economic potential currently, followed by autonomous vehicles.  Drones are used to collect data across a wide variety of functions –  for surveillance, security, stock management, weather forecasting, obtaining air data, oceanic data, agricultural planning, etc.

Some fascinating use cases:

Healthcare

Drones are proving to be more and more effective in several ways – they are currently used extensively for surveillance of disaster sites that have biological hazards.  There is no better relevance than the current times when they can actually be used in epidemiology to track disease spread,  and of course for further research and studies.  Drones are facilitating on-demand healthcare by providing medicines to terrains that are difficult to access.  Swoop Aero is one such company that provides medicines via drones.  Drones have brought healthcare into the most remote areas with diagnosis and treatment made available. Remote areas of Africa have their regular medical supplies,  vaccine supplies, lab samples collected, emergency medical equipment made available through Drones. They are also used in telementoring, for perioperative evaluation and so on.  Drones have been very efficient in accessing areas and providing necessary support where ground transport is not reliable or safe or impossible.  Today, most governments have Drones on their national agenda under various sectors. The Delft University of Technology is developing an ambulance drone technology that can be used at disaster sites to increase rescue rates..

Retail

In a world where we have virtual assistants do grocery shopping, replenish stocks, and cooking machines making food, when there is a need to go out shopping, shoppers want to have an easy, fast and frictionless process.  Today, customers do not want to wait in queues and go through conventional checkouts, and Retailers know that they might be losing customers due to their checkout process.  And autonomous shops like Amazon Go are giving that experience to customers where they can purchase without the inconvenience of checkout lines.

Providers of checkout-free shopping technology like ‘Grabango’, use sensor vision and ML to actually hold a virtual shopping basket for every person in the store.  The technology is reputed to process a multitude simultaneous checkout transactions. “Grabango’s system uses high-quality sensor hardware and high-precision computer algorithms to acquire the location of every item in the store. This results in a real-time planogram covering the entire retail environment.” They say it results in increased sales and loyalty, streamlined operations and inventory management and out of stock alerts.

Construction

Companies like Chicago based, Komatsu American Corp., have autonomous haulage stems that have optimized safety in the mining industry like never before. They “help you continue to meet your bottom line while achieving zero-harm” while their focus has been on developing autonomous mining solutions, they have been doing it for more than three decades now! Their FrontRunner AHS has moved more than two billion tons of surface material so far in driverless operations.  Catepillar would be deploying their fleet of autonomous trucks and blast drills for the iron mine in Western Australia – Rio Tinto Koodaideri.  The industry is thriving with autonomous and semi autonomous equipment, and it is evident that it has brought improvements to productivity, and increased profitability. At the Australian mine “autonomous vehicles operated on average 700 hours longer and with 15 per cent lower unit costs”… Similarly, there are other companies like Intsite, a heavy machinery company; their autonomous crane ÁutoSite 100’ does autonomous operation of heavy machinery.

Transportation

Most of us think Tesla when we think autonomous vehicles.  Elon Musk’s dream of providing autonomous ride-sharing has Tesla working on getting out one million robotaxis on the road this year. We will have to wait and see how that is going to pan out. Though autonomous vehicles are the most popular, I suppose it might take a little more time before it finds answers to the regulatory challenges, definitely not an easy task.  It gets quite overwhelming when we think of what we are expecting from autonomous vehicles – it assumes correct performance no matter the uncertainties on the roads and the environment, as well as the ability to face any sort of system failures on its own, and AI is a very critical technology when we are talking real-time decision making. Those sort of scenarios call for a strong computing platform in order to do the analysis at the edge for faster decision making.  The new V2X, which is the 5G vehicle-to-everything is expected to make autonomous vehicles mainstream because the vital information would get transmitted as structured data to the vehicle. V2X is expected to have vehicles interfacing with anything, be it pedestrians, roadside infrastructure, cyclists, etc.

Today, technology is also looking at ‘vehicle platooning’ – “Platoons decrease the distances between cars or trucks using electronic, and possibly mechanical, coupling. This capability would allow many cars or trucks to accelerate or brake simultaneously. This system also allows for a closer headway between vehicles by eliminating reacting distance needed for human reaction.” It has a group of self driving vehicles moving at high speed but safely, as the trucks are in constant communication with each other and use this intelligence to make informed decisions like braking, speeds, etc.  And autonomous trucks and cars can automatically join these platoons or leave, this has the advantages of reduced congestion, fewer traffic collisions, better fuel economy, and shorter commutes during peak hours. 

Conclusion

Studies show that Autonomous things are fast moving to ‘swarm’ or a bunch of intelligent devices, where multiple devices will function together collaboratively, as against the previously isolated intelligent components/ things. They are going to be intelligently networked among themselves and with the environment, and the wider that becomes within every industry, they are going to show phenomenal capabilities. But let’s not forget there is a whole other side to AI, given how unpredictable things are in life, AI would sooner or later have to respond to things that it never saw in training… we still are the smarter ones…

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomous_things

https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/gartner-top-10-strategic-technology-trends-for-2020/

https://worldline.com/en/home/blog/2020/march/from-automatic-to-autonomous-payments-can-things-pay.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-driving_car

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6174005/

https://www.komatsuamerica.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platoon_(automobile)https://grabango.com/