You Don’t Have to Go to Mars to See Robots

When Curiosity, the newest NASA rover exploration vehicle, landed on Mars, millions watched. Crowds gathered in Times Square to see the touchdown at 1:17AM eastern time. As a saying that has been floating about online goes, it’s like the Olympics for nerds. So what do surveying the Martian landscape , measuring electromagnetic radiation, and sampling soil have to do with the work of an IT department? Strict speaking, nothing. But move beyond the literal and a whole world will open up for people who might have thought that an information systems degree was the end of necessary learning. And robotics has moved out of science fiction movies, university prototypes, and even rocket science labs, and into the world of business. The operation of Curiosity gives some good insight into what makes robots so useful for corporations:

  • They can perform complicated movements under automated control.
  • Robots can take measurements and run tests.
  • All the information can be sent back to the controlling systems.
  • Robots can work with mechanized strength and speed that humans cannot match and work under inhospitable conditions.

Robots are already in wide use in corporate operations: assembling cars, controlling pipelines, picking products from shelves. Foxconn, a contract electronics assembly company that assembles many iPhones and iPads for Apple, announced last year that it would add upwards of 1 million robots by 2014.

As robots become ever more common in business, IT departments that are not yet accustomed to working with the devices need to embrace the necessary technologies. A first step is to remember that not all robots look like Curiosity — or Robbie the Robot, for that matter.

A robot could be as simple as an actuator that can operate a valve in a chemical manufacturing plant or as complex as the automated welding arms on an automobile assembly line. As with Curiosity, all robots need power and must be located in the places where they must undertake their tasks. Luckily, rocket boosters are rarely necessary. But all robotic devices need two things.

One is telecommunications to send commands and receive data. That may mean Ethernet connections or wireless communications for remote devices. It could also mean separate networks running through factories. The other necessary factor is software to operate the devices. Much of it is commercially available and designed to work with systems called SCADA, or supervisory control and data acquisition. It may run centrally or be written for specialty devices like industrial controllers that oversee such things as manufacturing devices, HVAC installations, and power generators.

This entire small universe of hardware and software must be integrated with normal IT systems, operations ensured and data pulled off and made available to management for analysis. It’s a lot of work, and for those who want to advance their careers, it is time to start learning how to successfully undertake it.

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