Crane controls: Lindsey Anderson covers remote access

By Lindsey Anderson03 May 2010

CattronConnect software can be synced up with smartphones for reports to be delivered into the palm

CattronConnect software can be synced up with smartphones for reports to be delivered into the palm of your hand

As business becomes more on-the-go, people want their data to travel with them. Whether it's opening an e-mail, checking stocks, reading a PDF or answering phone calls - the ability to have information at your fingertips is imperative in today's business climate.

For example, remote control manufacturer Cattron Group International's CattronConnect software allows users to create and manage custom reports that monitor equipment maintenance, as well as provide alerts before damage occurs to machinery or personnel. The software offers customers the ability to communicate wirelessly and bi-directionally with all of their fixed or mobile assets on a almost real-time basis using either IP-based mobile networks or 802.11 or both.

"For CattronConnect in and of itself, we're seeing people are starting to notice the accessibility to iPhones and BlackBerries," says Haroon Inam, vice president of global engineering for Cattron. "When we generate reports, for example, if somebody has CattronConnect on their mobile crane, they can track where all their devices are using Google Maps and we can show them Google Maps with the right report on an iPhone, iPad, iPod or BlackBerry."

Cattron has been testing and developing the iPhone technology for a few months now, Inam says, and original equipment manufacturers are now welcome to snag CattronConnect and start syncing it with mobile devices. However, there are limitations to what mobile devices should, and can, control, Inam warns.

"We have been evaluating [applications] very carefully," he says. "We have the ability to develop applications for the iPhone - we have developed some rudimentary apps for the iPhone - and we have conducted a good study of using these smartphones as [crane] remote controls."

Cattron, which has researched and studied smartphones' hardware, software and the costing structure of what applications are suitable and which are best left untouched, have concluded that safety-critical functions are nearly impossible to justify running on top of commercially available hardware and software.

"You don't know if the phone is going to lock up or not," Inam says. "If it locks up, you certainly don't want a runaway machine, so our scientists and engineers have said that safety-critical applications are not ready to run on commercial smart phones."

Cloud thinking

John Karbassi, vice president of operations at control manufacturer Kar-Tech, Inc., says that while there would be huge red lettering, Kar-Tech can make operating a crane from an iPhone happen. And although that might not be the most-savvy idea, Kar-Tech looks for those types of customers: the ones who think - and work - outside the box.

"That's sort of a niche that we fill: forward-looking OEMs who are looking to do things like [iPhone applications]," Karbassi says. "Right now, you're seeing a real generation shift in leadership. The 55-, 65-year-old guys are retiring and the guy that is taking their place is 30, 35-years-old and grew up playing Nintendo who have a lot more interest in this [technology.]"

Despite this, demand isn't peaking for applications or smartphone capabilities like one would think, Karbassi says. "We're putting it out there as an option, but on the smartphone, I haven't seen a take. Most people just do similar (tasks) with a PDA because they can toss it in a tool box; it's literally a tool. You pull it out when you need it and put it away when you don't."

Kar-Tech has also developed a diagnostic and calibration tool that is completely remote via cellular modems and applications for PC, PDA and smartphones. This technology allows OEMs or fleet managers to diagnose machines in the field without having to send a technician or rely solely on an end-user.

By installing a remote diagnostic module on cranes, through the machine's CANbus, it allows the crane to be remotely dialed into. Once the problem is found, the person on the other side can recalibrate and make changes accordingly. "If they're crazy enough, they can try and operate the machine," Karbassi jokes. "Where it gets real neat with some of the high-dollar equipment is in leasing situations; if the operator doesn't pay, they can actually shut the machine down."

But Karbassi says the tool is mostly geared for diagnosing a problem and the only downside to the technology can lie with the beholder. "Once it gets to the end user, if he doesn't want to pick up that $30 a month bill, then the whole thing becomes useless," Karbassi says. "So the approach we take with smaller equipment manufacturers is: as an OEM, why don't you guys put a couple of these units on the shelf, that way, when something happens, you can overnight this out."

From there, all the mechanic or onsite person has to do is plug it in, dial in and see what's going on. "It's pretty powerful, it does take a forward-thinking OEM to see the value there, but we're seeing a pretty strong uptick in acceptance right now," Karbassi says.

Tough technology

With breakthroughs in technology occurring more frequently than ever (at time of press, Apple was concluding a press event in which it introduced its newest operating system for the iPhone - OS 4.0 - allowing iPhone users the ability to multitask amongst other features), the focus in construction has started to shift from what technology is capable of doing, but what it can withstand while doing it.

"The thing to look for, or hope for, is a ruggedized iPhone that can be waterproof and take big drops, because our service guys are roofless," Inam says. "There's no room for smartphones. They are out there, it's snowing, they pull out their smartphone and it gets all wet - it's not going to work very well.

"So we think that while a smartphone is good to have as an interface, a ruggedized smartphone would be a good thing to have, as well."

Until technology is incased in metal - or something just as protective, we can't expect to see sensitive smartphones in the field too much. But it is clear that developers are thinking outside the box, and will continue to do so.

"Rather than just talking about, we're actually doing it," Inam says.

Charge up those batteries.

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