Companies are using autonomous systems as a new source of competitiveness, efficiency and improved safety. They are also suitable for work in extreme conditions, which would prove challenging for people.
According to Ismo Vessonen, Business Development Manager at VTT, autonomous systems and partial automation are now hot topics.
– Many companies are now wondering how to make better use of systems in their business. Big companies have already drawn up roadmaps for raising their degree of automation, he says.
Commercial systems are already available and are currently being applied in warehouses, production lines and machinery, for example.
Vessonen foresees an even higher degree of automation in these areas. For example, ports and mines will continue to raise their level of automation, from which they have long benefited.
In urban environments, on the other hand, there are different goals such as the automation of door-to-door journeys. Journeys have to be made from door-to-door seamlessly, using different modes of transport. Vessonen points out that drones are underused, despite their enormous potential.
– They can streamline logistics, guarantee safety and monitor the environment. A drone can handle issues such as natural resource inventories and highly detailed monitoring of the environment's condition and situation.
Sensors play a key role
Various sensors – which can be used to measure the system's own and the surrounding situation – play a key role in autonomous systems. Vessonen says that the fusion of sensor data is highlighted in many systems.
– Various sensors provide an accurate picture of the environment. For example, in autonomous ships they are used to perceive objects in the environment.
Key technologies in other autonomous systems include artificial intelligence, reliable telecommunications and information security solutions, as well as various camera technologies.
Vessonen states that most systems are now semiautomated i.e., they still need human input. However, the degree of automation will gradually increase.
– Remote control of devices will be developed first, after which the automation of various functions will begin, he explains.
Job roles are changing
Autonomous systems in work environments mean new roles, tasks and tools for employees. For example, the working environment may transfer from field conditions to a central control room. Work tends to feel more meaningful indoors than in a crane basket, for example.
According to VTT's human-machine-expert, Hannu Karvonen, autonomous devices will not make people redundant, since all systems need supervision. However, work feels different when handled from a control room rather than directly in the field.
– Work should be designed to feel meaningful. For example, the challenge lies in making control room work so interesting that people feel like doing it, Karvonen says.
He says that ensuring situational awareness in the control room is a design priority. There must be the ability to address problems.
Other challenges include users' trust in development.
– An operator can have too little or too much trust in systems. Too much trust can lead to allowing a system to function too independently. In other cases, people may be too critical of technology, not allowing systems to perform certain tasks for other reasons.
Technology is being developed via several projects
Technologies for autonomous systems are being developed via a number of projects. The EU is investing in research into automated systems, particularly in ICT, factories of the future and the transport sectors. VTT has around a dozen EU projects underway, related to automated systems in transport and industry.
In Finland, examples include the Design for Value technology programme coordinated by DIMECC Oy, in which digitalisation's impact on supply chains is being studied with the aim of achieving a networked, autonomous and highproductivity ecosystem. The marine industry, in particular, and the development of its autonomous systems are strongly involved in the programme.
For Vessonen, VTT's strengths lie in combining the changing roles of people with technological opportunities and ensuring information and operational security with the help of simulation solutions, for example.
– Many systems interact with each other. If safe operation is ensured virtually, costs are lowered and product development cycles are accelerated, he says.