The Cloud’s Implications for 3D Machine Control

What is the cloud?
The Cloud or cloud computing is the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network. Typically, this is the Internet but local, private networks can also be established. The name comes from the use of a cloud-shaped symbol as an abstraction for the complex infrastructure it contains in system diagrams. Cloud computing entrusts remote services with a user's data, software and computation.

There are many types of cloud computing. After understanding the various types, it becomes obvious that the term “Cloud” is used in a broad sense. Lets take a look at the list below then understand how this can benefit 3D machine control and site connectivity.

Below is a partial list of the types of cloud computing.
  •     Infrastructure as a service (IaaS)
  •     Platform as a service (PaaS)
  •     Software as a service (SaaS)
  •     Network as a service (NaaS)
  •     Storage as a service (STaaS)
  •     Security as a service (SECaaS)
  •     Data as a service (DaaS)
  •     Database as a service (DBaaS)
  •     Test environment as a service (TEaaS)
  •     Desktop virtualization
  •     API as a service (APIaaS)
  •     Backend as a service (BaaS)

  Business Model
In the business model using software as a service, users are provided access to application software and databases. The cloud providers manage the infrastructure and platforms on which the applications run. SaaS is sometimes referred to as “on-demand software” and is usually priced on a pay-per-use basis. SaaS providers generally price applications using a subscription fee.

Proponents claim that the SaaS allows a business the potential to reduce IT operational costs by outsourcing hardware and software maintenance and support to the cloud provider. This enables the business to reallocate IT operations costs away from hardware/software spending and personnel expenses, towards meeting other IT goals. In addition, with applications hosted centrally, updates can be released without the need for users to install new software. One drawback of SaaS is that the users' data is stored on the cloud provider’s server. As a result, there could be unauthorized access to the data.

End users access cloud-based applications through a web browser or a light-weight desktop or mobile app while the business software and user's data are stored on servers at a remote location. Proponents claim that cloud computing allows enterprises to get their applications up and running faster, with improved manageability and less maintenance, and enables IT to more rapidly adjust resources to meet fluctuating and unpredictable business demand.

  The Modern Job Site
Many heavy equipment manufacturers provide machine connectivity for monitoring vehicle health, idle-time, up-time, location, etc. This falls into the  “network as a service (NaaS) category. These services are typically utility-fee based and can streamline maintenance schedules, point out unproductive or even destructive operating habits, thus potentially extending the life of the machine.

With the growing popularity of 3D machine control, what are the potential benefits of true cloud computing? As we have learned from the various types of cloud computing, deeper analysis is required.

What exactly would be placed in the cloud? If we look at the software as a service (SaaS) model, the positioning system would basically be a “node” using cloud based software and data. While this might simplify software updates and create continuity of data, production would be reliant on the up-time of the cloud. Nothing worse than being ready to work and either the network is down or connectivity to the network is not possible.

Machine sensors (GNSS, axial, IMU, etc) are local, i.e., on the machine. Any latency between sensors, computation of position to the design terrain model (DTM) can create issues. I believe that “software as a service” and to some degree, “data as a service” may have limited benefits to machine control, or at least in their traditional definitions.  There is a need to bring the data and information together and a desire to centralize IT expertise and investments. I spoke to Jonathan Peck, PhD who is President and CEO of Peck Tech Consulting, Ltd. Dr. Peck, "Remote Operating Centres (ROCs) will be heavily dependent on the viability of the Cloud to bring together data & information from multiple remote sites and in a timely (near to real time) manner. There is also a push by some large mining companies with multiple properties that see the Cloud as an avenue for further consolidation & streamlining via ROC's." Peck added, "This way they run one central version of FMS & HPGPS systems and all sites are capable of tapping into these via the Cloud. Means benefits for systems support (central facility only) as well as not having duplicative sets of technical “experts” supporting systems at all their sites."

The ability to log in remotely and trouble shoot a machine system from a central office or from a system providers technical support department has many advantages. Much time is saved saved, without travel, to minimize machine downtime. This would represent NaaS. Data files can also be moved to one or more machines or rover assets as well as software and firmware updates, all provided remotely.

Another benefit would be to stream data such as position, grid updates, sensor data, etc back to a main computer for storage and analysis. The stored data would be secure should anything happen to the machine or positioning. The data would also be available for queries that provide many types of reporting including historical playback. This is an example of BaaS.

Data as a service (DaaS) is a slightly different model. DaaS is a cousin of software as a service (SaaS).

Like all members of the "as a Service" (aaS) family, DaaS is based on the concept that the product, data in this case, can be provided on demand to the user regardless of geographic or organizational separation of provider and consumer.

Traditionally, most enterprises have used data stored in a self-contained repository, for which software was specifically developed to access and present the data in a human-readable form. One result of this paradigm is the bundling of both the data and the software needed to interpret it into a single package, sold as a consumer product. As the number of bundled software/data packages proliferated and required interaction among one another, another layer of interface was required. These interfaces, collectively known as enterprise application integration (EAI), often tended to encourage vendor lock-in, as it is generally easy to integrate applications that are built upon the same foundation technology.

The drawbacks of data as a service are generally similar to those associated with any type of cloud computing, such as the reliance of the customer on the service provider's ability to avoid server downtime. Specific to the DaaS model, a common criticism is that when compared to traditional data delivery, the consumer is really just "renting" the data, using it to produce a graph, chart or map, or possibly perform analysis, but for data as a service, generally the data is not available for download.

The Cloud has more “personalities” than most are aware. Cost is claimed to be reduced in a cloud delivery model. This centralizes IT resources and service expertise reducing the barriers to entry. Pricing can be based on a utility model. Updates, etc are maintained at the cloud level thus simplifying the clients interface and need for IT personnel.

There are elements of cloud computing already available for 3D machine control and other job site assets. Be sure you understand how the system works, what is the liability and guarantee should the server become unavailable. Ask “who owns the data” and how accessible are the backups. Be wary of "vendor lock-in systems or at least understand the details.

As machines become smarter and positioning continues to permeate these smarter machines, it's an easy bet that centralization and cloud computing is here to stay. On demand positioning and machine control is appealing to corporate management and manufacturers. As new cloud models develop, I think the rental market may also benefit. There are big visions for the cloud and ROC's, and the sky is the limit.

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*Special thanks to Jonathan Peck, PhD. Jonathan is a pioneer in positioning and he and his colleagues at Peck Tech Consulting, Ltd are continuing to innovate.

Suggested Related Reading
The Risks And Benefits Of Cloud Computing

Various cloud-based offerings from positioning providers (partial listing)

Trimble Connected Site

Caterpillar Product Link

Leica iCONnect

John Deer JDLink

Volvo Construction Equipment - Telematics on-board

Carlson Software Machine Control - Fleet Manager Office w.Heartbeat v2.0

*Editors Note: I am not aware of all providers. If I have missed an application or company, please email me the details and links and I will be happy to review and add to the reference portions of this article.

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