Remote operation — the future of industrial innovation?

It's not just the white-collar world going the way of remote working — are we seeing the start of a ‘teleoperation’ revolution?
27 October 2020
  • Remote operation is starting to see wider use in industrial settings, making it easier for businesses to maintain supply chains without accelerating risk of Covid transmission
  • Through careful use of sensors and cameras, socially-distanced drivers can continue their role safely and with accountability
  • Teleoperations are also responsible for remote analysis of workspaces and processes, which can lead to many operational optimizations across industries

Since the turn of the year, business supply chains across the globe have become increasingly fraught with the risk of Covid transmission. The pieces of the puzzle that used to guide goods, services, and products to end-users and recipients have become trickier to navigate. Remote operation is helping to overcome these difficulties.

Broadly speaking, reducing the number of people in production environments – factories, mines, warehouses, etc – is a natural corollary of the impact we’ve all felt.

Yes, their jobs are ‘essential’ for many, but is their physical presence? Tales abound of technology being more readily and widely utilized to minimize risk and expedite processes, from warehouse picking to transit.

Remote operation is about pulling back on proximity, and creating safer/less cluttered workspaces in, and beyond, the Covid era. In a BBC interview, Elliot Katz (co-founder of Phantom Auto) focuses on the example of forklift operators, and the firm’s ability to carry out their roles/control their machines from afar with remote-control technology. Phantom Auto is now providing their remote operational systems to swathes of new clients. Are we seeing the start of a ‘teleoperation’ revolution?

If so, what about safety? And financial implications? Who is accountable when something goes wrong?

A wide field of view

Here at TechHQ, it’s not too rare for us to revere the power of technology in responding to events and problems. Remote-controlled vehicles across industrial settings are no different and are stepping up (or stepping away) to keep supply chains running as smoothly as possible without compromising on social distancing measures.

Typically, cameras and sensors are fitted meticulously on operating apparatus, and operators are set up remotely to have a wide field of view. With perhaps a more holistic view of one’s surroundings than they would get when sat behind the wheel, the safety of the solution leans on the care of those fitting the machines with the tech. Generally, driving control is enabled by a joystick or steering wheel and pedals on the floor, and the forklifts are also fitted with microphones (meaning the operator can be warned should something be about to go wrong).

There are plenty of other firms working to get ahead and diversify their industrial offering across teleoperations. Further to Phantom Auto, there’s ESTEC, Teleo, and Actemium, as well as countless other firms working in the teleoperation space. Some focus on retrofitting existing equipment, whilst others offer off-the-shelf remote specialisms. Both are coming in handy in the pandemic era.

Would you trust a forklift being controlled off-site? Source: Shutterstock

One driver, many machines

Teleo, for one, claims that in the not-so-distant future, their remote ‘drivers’ could control a variety of vehicles nearby. While this might spell fewer industrial jobs, it also makes those jobs more accessible and, Teleo argue, safer. It’s an interesting crossroads: fewer drivers for the same number of machines can increase accountability but may lead to overworking, fatigue or confusion. These are factors that teleoperation businesses will have to tackle, and striking a balance is key to truly revolutionizing industrial application.

Another factor is the technological security of remote operations. Senior stakeholders in teleoperation firms are united on the need for stringent cyber-security safeguards, rigorous testing, and extensive engineering training. Many firms encrypt communications between teleoperators and vehicles, requiring authorization of drivers and automatically shutting down vehicles should they lose access to a reliable communications signal.

Not without limitations and risks

And so, we segue sweetly from the promising and the protecting to the pragmatic. A 100% reliable communications signal is a very elusive thing across wide areas (factories, development sites, mines). If the signal between driver and machine cuts out just as the driver is remotely steering the vehicle round a tricky segment, or a busy corner where others are present, what’s to stop an incident unfolding?

Moreover, no combination of security measures can completely eradicate the risk involved with teleoperation, nor the question marks that will inevitably arise should something go wrong. Christian Facchi and his team at the University of Applied Sciences, have studied such risks, especially the prospect of cyber terrorism and nefarious takeovers of remote technologies. He claims that “standards governing the security of teleoperated vehicles should probably be set by a public body rather than firms themselves.”

Dr. Facchi also believes – and it’s a belief that resonates more widely across the fields of technology and operations – that teleoperated vehicles may prove more immediately useful than autonomous ones, thanks in part to their accessibility and comparative simplicity. Remote operation can, in turn, be used to train autonomous vehicles on specific terrains, and within nuanced industrial environments.

Beyond vehicles — the remote optimization of factories

The removal of workers from their usual spot on the supply chain is but the latest in a long line of ‘remote’ business optimizations that have spread throughout industries in the last few years. Teleoperation also takes on the form of data collection from industrial sites to a sort of remote ‘epicenter’, where analysis can occur to inform business decisions and refinements.

Industrial robots in production line manufacturer factory / Industrial robots in motion.

Industrial robots on the production line. Source: Shutterstock

Actemium – a teleoperation firm and worldwide network “100% committed” to improving industrial performance – are currently helping French business Air Liquide to refine the teleoperations across their factories. The project’s lofty aim is to use remote analysis and algorithms to adjust equipment and increase energy efficiency. They’re also able to judge the need for certain gases at certain levels in the atmosphere, and can remotely shut down/restart a site. This form of teleoperation – predictive maintenance – is used like the sensors, cameras, and safeguards on remotely operated forklifts, to detect threats, hazards, and malfunctions before they have an impact.

Technology is earning its worth when it comes to helping us overcome the risks of Covid. In industrial settings – with densely-populated spaces and busy supply chains – teleoperation can certainly help to keep operations ticking along nicely. What remains to be seen is how scalable and safe such remote-operation proves to be once social distancing is not a chief concern for businesses. The benefits offered by teleoperation in the form of analytical and predictive maintenance, though, is something that has great potential to revolutionize our working spaces, just as it is our (increasingly smart) cities.

Beyond industry

Beyond the realms of use in enterprise and production, remote operation is seeing widespread (and, at times, grave) use in militaries and warfare. On the one hand, teleoperation allows, for example, a troop of soldiers to deploy and control a robot to gather intelligence and gauge risk in high-stakes situations. On the other, the ruthlessness and risk to life offered by remote-operated weapons are undeniable, and morally-ambiguous at best. From a shameless literary perspective, I would encourage you all to read Drone Theory by Grégoire Chamayou.