The trend in many industries is toward an Internet of Things in which thins interact with one another in an intelligent, autonomous, distributed, and decentralized fashion. With Coaty, Siemens has now developed a platform-independent interaction framework for decentralized, collaborative autonomous systems. Coaty is being used as a pilot application in distributed logistics and enables direct interaction between autonomously acting IoT devices as well as edge and cloud services and the human counterpart.
We’re living in an increasingly complex world where the capabilities of technological components from all industries are constantly growing, where the demand is for systems that can be configured ever more dynamically and scaled more rapidly, and where the majority of business-related data and functions is stored and organized centrally in the clouds of the major IT players.
“That’s the reality in which we’re operating and seeking solutions to make this complexity manageable for our customers,” says Ralph Büsgen, head of automated guided vehicle (AGV) systems in factory automation at Digital Industries. In many logistics applications today, semi-smart, driverless vehicles that continually communicate their coordinates as they move around are the order of the day.
“Our customers – especially in the automotive industry – now expect us to take the next step in the digitalization of factories: self-organizing machines and logistics”, says Büsgen. “The central coordination of production focusses on monitoring and optimization of production processes in realtime.” Machins and logistics on the shopfloor are being equipped with more intelligence and enabled to communicate and cooperate autonomously in a more decentralized structure.”
Communication in the collaborative IIoT
Such self-organizing distributed systems are an important step towards an industrial IoT (IIoT). “Inside many heads the idea of the Internet of Things is still the one of a hierarchical system which is mostly organized centrally. For many cases this is the best solution. But we also see ne use cases for distributed and collaborative structures, that we could not address with a hierarchical system”, explains Büsgen.
The infrastructure for this type of collaborative IoT could even enable subsystems whose interaction wasn’t explicitly planned beforehand to spontaneously cooperate. Envisioned, for example, are a mobile robot with a gripper and a conveyor belt that autonomously collaborate to create a new solution for transport tasks in production.
In reality, Siemens has already developed a solution called Coaty. Coaty is a collaborative IoT framework that’s available as open source software. Installed on the IoT device as a software component, Coaty establishes a communication network whose participants – known as agents – are loosely coupled and interact in an ad hoc fashion without a central coordination authority. Coaty has been used in a project sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) called CrESt, and has been further developed for logistics applications in collaboration with the Berlin-based company ASTI InSystems. ASTI InSystems manufactures AGVs.
“Vehicles equipped with Coaty have risen to the next level of autonomous action,” says Jochen Nickles, who works at Corporate Technology, Siemens’ global research and development department. “The vehicles not only know where they are and where they’re headed, but they also make arrangements with other vehicles as to which one will perform which task without the intervention of a central controller.” Technologically speaking, explains Nickles, this is made possible by the integration of the Coaty software in the IoT devices. “The devices have a runtime environment and a wireless network connection. They communicate via a publish-subscribe process. This is a messaging service that permits messages to be sent and received between independent applications.
In the professional jargon, this phenomenon is known as “any-to-any communication.” “Imagine me saying to an unknown audience, who can help me?” says Nickles. “What my question implies is, who has the capabilities, the time, and is currently in the neighborhood?” This type of any-to-any communication allows data to be shared, discovered, queried, modified, and persisted in a distributed system, as well as remote procedure calls to be executed. A colleague, says Nickles with a grin, has found an apt description: “Coaty is the Tinder of the Industrial IoT. The agents find one another, start communicating, and then either do or don’t collaborate.” A proof of concept of a self-organizing logistics application with several driverless transport systems in March 2020 in the Siemens Automotive Showroom and Testcenter in Nuremberg was successful.
New agents and features can also be dynamically and spontaneously added to existing IoT systems, says Nickles. All types of system agent, such as sensors, mobile devices, and edge and cloud services, are equal communication partners. According to Nickles, Coaty’s purpose is to enable autonomous systems to interact in any constellation. “The first step is to establish non-hierarchical communication, including the corresponding distributed coordination algorithms. This enables us to integrate centrally as well as decentral organized applications into one system. The next step would be the integration of AI elements in order to use the full potential of those systems.”
Integration in the product portfolio
The medium-term objective, according to Ralph Büsgen, is to take the knowledge obtained through Coaty into the SIMOVE modular system form Siemens, thereby bringing innovation to the automation of logistics applications with AGVs. In addition to edge and cloud services, Büsgen also sees smartphones and wearables interacting with machines: “We refer to this as the ‘digitally empowered human’.”
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