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Pandemics and Remote Operations

A lot has been said and written about COVID-19 recently. The first two pages of a Google search reveal the dominance of articles relating to people and the community health impacts – quite rightly so. Within this, social (physical) distancing is a key theme. Infrastructure operators (and maintainers) face the dilemma of trying to keep essential facilities operating safely and efficiently, while also ensuring their specialist service providers (people) have limited contact with surfaces and other people.

There are solutions – and have been for many years. Modern solutions are cheaper and easier to use than some traditional ones. It’s just that some industries and organisations have been much slower on the uptake than others.

Between 1970 and 2002 there were no pandemics of note. However, between 2002 and 2020 there has been SARS, Swine Flu, MERS, Ebola and now COVID-19. With ongoing concern regarding the over-prescription of antibiotics and the emergence of super-bugs, there is a reasonable probability of equally scary pandemics in the future, which will also require physical distancing measures to be implemented. ON that basis, the challenge for infrastructure operators and maintainers is set to remain.

In about 1970 we saw the introduction of the first Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC). They didn’t connect to anything at first, but later became interconnected by proprietary networks. In the late 1980s, with the advent of PCs and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software, PLCs were able to be connected to existing infrastructure to monitor and control their outputs. Unix variants of these systems could even provide this capability remotely through technologies such as X-Windows (not related to Microsoft). By the mid 1990s, Microsoft-based systems could do it too.

In 2010, a company called NEST connected the first sensor\controller (a thermostat) to the Internet. This was arguably the start of the Internet of Things (IoT). About the same time, computer gaming technologies were starting to be used to provide Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) connections to real infrastructure to remotely monitor and control them.

Long-time industrial systems integrators like VRT Systems have been on the journey from these early beginnings.

Old timers, like some of us at VRT Systems, don’t recall discussions about remote monitoring technologies and facilities in relation to any of the previous pandemics, but we are seeing these discussion emerge now in the COVID-19 era. So, what’s the difference?

The differences:

  1. People are now doing many different types of work remotely, using cloud-based collaboration tools like Skype, Slack, Zoom, Teams and Confluence. The use of these programs have, for the most part, proven to be easy and effective.
  2. The IoT provides similar ease of access and use as the above tools (well, almost), along with the same or superior levels of cyber security (at least for quality industrial IoT products).
  3. Remote collaboration and remote IoT share many of the same technologies, including: cloud computing, wireless connections, friendly web browser-based User Interfaces (UI), cyber security (encryption, authentication), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and so on.
  4. The opex financial models that now dominate the business software space (SaaS, etc.) are also available in IoT cloud-based remote operations solutions, providing much needed flexibility and protection for businesses uncertain about their futures.

So, while secure, remote connections to physical infrastructure have proven successful for several decades, perhaps it’s only recently that it has been perceived as being accessible and affordable. This is likely partially due to the comfort that industry decision-makers have with remote collaboration workplaces. Products like WideSky which are available in a SaaS model, fit comfortably into this remote operations scenario.

No discussion about removing people in industrial environments from contact with others or potentially contaminated surfaces would be complete without mentioning robots. These fit into an IoT ecosystem too. Next year WideSky will be collaborating with robots in a leading edge metals refining process in a progressive Scandinavian country.

How important will remote operations facilities be in protecting people and sustaining infrastructure during future pandemics? We’re seeing this question being asked more frequently.

If you want to isolate your technical and operations management staff from your physical infrastructure and fellow workers, and if you want to achieve this with an opex financial model, then call to discuss some proven options.

John Meehan, CEO, WideSky

 07 3535 9602

john.meehan@vrt.com.au

John has over 50 years of experience delivering industrial information solutions, starting with the transition of analogue to digital systems in the 1970s through to current trends such as IoT, big data, cloud and advanced analytics.

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