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What IIoT and Star Wars' BB-8 have in common

Jan. 7, 2016
Like BB-8, IIoT looks futuristic and fantastic, while it's largely just a mashup of existing technologies in an innovative wrapper
About the Author
Paul Studebaker is chief editor of Control. He earned a master's degree in metallurgical engineering and gathered 12 years experience in manufacturing before becoming an award-winning writer and editor for publications including Control and Plant Services.Most folks who see video of Star Wars VII's new droid, BB-8, rolling around with its seemingly independent robot head atop its ball-shaped body assume it's a trick of computer-generated imagery (CGI). How else could its head float above the surface of its body as the sphere rolls across gritty sand dunes, through verdant forests and up metal ramps into sundry amazing spacecraft?

But I heard BB-8 really exists, that people had seen it, it's not just CGI, so I did a web search to try to find out how it works. As of this writing, it seems no one knows for sure, but the consensus is that the movie producers used several versions (and portions) of the droid with different capabilities to produce the various scenes, and there's probably some CGI as well.

People suggest that the propmakers essentially put a remote-controlled Segway inside a sphere, like a hamster in a hollow ball. The head is on a set of rollers and stays on the ball with a magnetic coupling to an articulated post (replacing the handlebar on a conventional Segway). The post can rotate and displace to move the head while the Segway moves the ball, with a low center of mass to steady the sphere and keep the droid standing upright.

Proof of the concept can be found in the BB-8 toy produced by Sphero. A Youtube video shows the $149.99 plastic toy cut open to reveal essentially a small radio-controlled car with a post and magnet to retain the head while it rolls around on the sphere. Demystified, BB-8 is a mashup of a hamster ball, a radio-controlled car and some magnets. The only technology not represented in my kids' 20-year-old childhood toyboxes is the inductive coupling to charge the batteries.

It reminds me of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the much-ballyhooed, paradigm-shifting, game-changing technology coming to a plant near you, promising to massively increase your bottom line like the BB-8 toy is doing for Spheros and the Star Wars franchise is expected to do for Disney.

Like BB-8, the promoters make IIoT look futuristic and fantastic, while it's largely just a mashup of existing technologies in an innovative wrapper. But while it breaks little new ground, the areas IIoT does advance are important and potentially amazing: standards for communication across devices and platforms, and use cases that demonstrate ROI.

The standards problems are complex but defined and solvable. The use cases are the most intriguing frontier. Cases for the non-industrial IoT range from Apple Pay, Nest thermostats and smartphone-controlled light bulbs to transmitter-equipped trucks and cows that report when they're going to need the attention of a mechanic or a veterinarian. Finding the right use cases, not just for the market in general but for your specific plant and industry, will be keeping  the best process control minds engaged for many years to come.

And that's the really cool thing about BB-8. By catching our eye, raising our curiosity, making us (well, me) wonder how it works, imagine new technology, and then find out it's based on accessible, even familiar, stuff makes me want to find other ways to leverage what I know to create an amazing opportunity.

What mashup of your existing tags, network and system with Internet-enabled commercial sensors, RFID tags, smartphones, GPS, etc. and commonly available databases (weather, exchange rates, traffic, and product, energy and materials costs, etc.) might save your plant a percent, keep your people safer, minimize environmental risk, or raise your profile as a good neighbor and great place to work? Start small, keep it easy, have fun, and see where it leads.

And if you find out, maybe you can explain to me how BB-8 climbs stairs.

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