I have long been fascinated by Lego robotics, and my four-year-old
son and I have spent the occasional rainy day looking at online videos of
everything from soccer-playing robots to a “pancake printer,” all assembled
with Lego components and often controlled by a smartphone. Search this
category, and you will also find robots designed to solve the ubiquitous
Rubik’s Cube. Recently one of these robots, the Cubestormer 3, set a new
record for solving the puzzle in a mere 3.253 seconds. Aside from a
fascinating, albeit rather short video, what can Cubestormer tell us about the
future of enterprise mobility?

The Android brain

Aside from the amazing Lego craftsmanship behind these types
of robots, I’m amazed that their “central nervous systems” are often commodity
smartphones. In the case of Cubestormer 3, a Samsung Galaxy S4 provides the
robot with vision and processing. When you consider the Rubik’s Cube, it’s a
fairly interesting computing problem that has many parallels to industrial
automation. There is a set of defined rules on how a solution can be
implemented (the various ways to turn the puzzle), a clear end-state (all sides
have the same color), and a varying series of steps that get from the starting
state to the end state. Furthermore, interpreting the starting state of the
problem (how the cube looks at the start) requires optical observation. Like an
assembly line robot that performs a precise series of tasks quickly,
Cubestormer is optimized to manipulate a Rubik’s Cube; however, it generally
starts with a cube in an unknown state, and must first analyze its environment
and determine the fastest way to reach the optimized end state.

It’s fairly
easy to see how this same series of steps applies to anything from controlling
an automated milling machine, to tracking vehicles entering and existing a
facility, to providing access control to a building.

Smartphones might seem more at home posting tweets and sending
email, but they’re actually quite effective in what amounts to low cost, highly
capable industrial “brain.” The smartphone possesses all the hardware and
computing power needed for fairly complex problems, combining the ability to
capture and process visual information, the computing power to determine a
solution, and the programmability and interfaces to control a machine that can
execute the solution, all while visually confirming “quality control.”

The consumerization
of industrial controls?

These functions are certainly not new in industrial controls
and robotics, but the fact that they’re available in a tiny commodity device
that can be acquired for a laughably low comparative price creates amazing
possibilities for industrial automation. Just as “consumerization” has changed
the face of corporate IT, the technologies and techniques that built
Cubestormer may change the face of industrial automation. Rather than
controlling a robot designed to manipulate a child’s toy, why not a fleet of
semi-autonomous forklifts trolling your warehouse? This technology exists
already, but is based on expensive proprietary hardware. Aside from a
specialized interface to control the vehicle itself, the average smartphone
brings processing, connectivity, and image processing to the party at a
fraction of the cost compared to proprietary control solutions.

Getting IT into the
act

Many people in the areas where smartphone-driven industrial
automation could help the most are unaware of the capabilities presented by
these technologies. Even if aware, they may not understand the capabilities,
development tools, and possibilities presented by smart mobile devices in this
emerging space. With the cost of entry so low, it may be worth establishing a
“skunkworks” collaboration between IT and traditional consumers of industrial
automation. Some creative thinking and low-cost materials might solve anything
from an access management system to automated quality controls. Even sharing
IT’s thoughts on the state of the industry can help elevate IT from technology
brokers to forward-thinking strategists, a position that will help boost the
value of any IT group.