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Case Study: Test driving autonomous ground vehicles…remotely

Sept. 9, 2020
How do you showcase solutions to customers during a lockdown?

By Dave Nowoswiat, senior enterprise marketing manager at Nokia, and Jason Scheib, director of business development at Provectus Robotics

As pandemic restrictions took effect on companies all over the world earlier this year, Ottawa-headquartered robotic-control systems provider Provectus Robotics faced what has become a frequent business challenge...in a lockdown situation, how can they keep business running and fully showcase their solutions to prospective customers?

Provectus Robotics has more than 25 years’ experience delivering robotic control and autonomous-vehicle systems to defense, security, agriculture, mining and construction clients worldwide. Traditionally, prospective customers visit its Ottawa-based L5 Innovation Centre test facility to view its portfolio of autonomous vehicles and related software solutions. But Director of Business Development Jason Scheib was forced to lockdown at his home office away from the Innovation Centre, so Provectus took to video-conferencing to, virtually, get face-to-face with customers. However, they feared that video-conferencing wouldn’t communicate the highly physical and interactive nature of Provectus’ autonomous ground vehicles (AGVs). 

The solution was private wireless networking. In its design/deployment phase, Provectus Robotics had the technical foresight to equip its AGVs with 4.9G/LTE modems, which meant that they could easily connect to Nokia’s industrial-grade private wireless network deployed in its L5 Innovation Center test facility. By integrating AGV-based camera video uplinks with web-conferencing platforms, the vehicles could be virtually operated and viewed from anywhere in the world. Scheib, despite being hundreds of kilometers away from the test facility, could now personally demonstrate AGVs’ capability in real-time to prospective customers, no matter where they were situated.

Additionally, this approach also enabled remote demonstration of the Provectus Advanced Robotic Intelligence System (ARIS) software, showcasing the technical and operational capabilities of its software platform, as well as the ways in which Nokia’s 4.9G/LTE private wireless network could be integrated into the platform. 

“Over private wireless, we can now remotely teleoperate our AGVs and illustrate their video and control capabilities without any image degradation,” Scheib explains. “Low latency means that actions happen in real-time, with no delay nor break in signal. Cell coverage in our testing field is more than three kilometers radius and the AGV’s signal connectivity remained strong even without line of sight. This is essential to safe operation, as AGVs can reach speeds of over 30 km/h, so we can’t have operators losing camera images, which would adversely impact their confidence in vehicle performance.”

Provectus Robotics is using the same approach for customers, allowing them to control and monitor their AGVs over long distances, without experiencing any reduction in system performance, and demonstrating an added capability that has made the solution even more compelling.

“Private 4.9G/LTE networking is a real step forward for AGVs,” adds Scheib. “We’ve used WiFi and other radio technologies in the past, but found that limited range and frequency of interference-related connectivity loss was a problem. Even using mesh networks, we couldn’t solve the problems associated with operation in congested environments, where our AGVs are typically used.”

Prompted by this success, Provectus Robotics and Nokia are taking this approach into the agriculture and food-processing industry, providing both an economic and workplace-safety benefit to deploying a private 4.9G/LTE network. Provectus Robotics’ AGVs are being used as autonomous ‘mule-trains’ to shuttle bulk storage containers between processing plants and outdoor warehouses where they are stacked into rows of up to 12 meters high. In summer months, high temperatures make it difficult to recruit and retain staff, so implementing an autonomous unmanned solution is a logical solution. And, with the introduction of private wireless 4.9G/LTE, continuous vehicle-based video feeds permit monitoring in real-time, giving the customer complete control and oversight of operations.

Nokia’s industrial-grade private wireless network provides highly reliable, campus-wide coverage of the outdoor storage area as a far more cost-effective and dependable solution than a large WiFi network, according to Provectus, which would also require installation of a costly WiFi repeater grid.

Provectus Robotics and its food-processor customer are also exploring additional use cases such as eco-friendly planting applications with autonomous robotic planters using solar power for recharging batteries. 

As Scheib states, “Control and tracking of these ‘green energy’ robotic planters will be needed by the customer, as it cultivates vast acres of farmland. A private wireless LTE network from Nokia will be essential to provide the necessary coverage to support their dispersed operations. Private wireless is proving not only to be a great boost to our own business during the pandemic, but it is also opening up a whole new range of game-changing added value for our customers.”