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How Attabotics and Microsoft use private LTE to monitor robots



Attabotics is emerging as a poster child for Microsoft's evolving enterprise telecom and wireless business. The Canadian maker of robotic supply chain solutions uses Microsoft's edge computing and IoT solutions on a private LTE network, which the companies built in partnership with Canadian wireless network operator Rogers.

In addition, Attabotics is helping to develop a private LTE network in Los Angeles for a retailer that is one of its customers. Its partners for that project include Microsoft and CommScope's Ruckus, but there is no carrier involved because the companies are using publicly available spectrum.

How Attabotics uses private LTE
Attabotics makes mobile robotic shuttles that quickly find and pull items from warehouse shelves. In its development lab, the company uses the private LTE network to harvest telemetry data from the robots, such as voltages, current and position. Edge computing servers process the data using artificial intelligence to glean the important data that needs to be sent to the cloud. Performance data for the robotic systems is processed on premise.

"We're not sending all the IoT feeds up to the cloud," said Attabotics Co-Founder and CEO Scott Gravelle. "We have basically a mini-cloud on site." Attabotics initially used mesh networks operating in the 900MHz bands to control its robots and harvest their data. Gravelle said the move to Microsoft Azure coupled with a private LTE network gives him more bandwidth, more stability and "much less latency, which is a big one when you're talking about driving robots around and not bumping into each other."

While data about robot performance can be processed on site, much of the data about the goods the robots are handling goes to the cloud, Gravelle said. "From the edge box we have a direct connection to [Microsoft] Azure, where we can aggregate all that data." He said that in the cloud that data is analyzed with inputs from other sources, such as data on customer behavior, order behavior, stock levels, transportation scheduling and inventory levels. "We can start making plans to move that inventory around, ideally in advance of expected demand," he said. "By pre-deploying inventory in market, we can lessen the cost of fulfillment dramatically."

Attabotics vs. Amazon?
Attabotics prides itself on a holistic approach to supply chain logistics, so it makes sense for the company to focus on network technologies as well as hardware and software. Ultimately, Gravelle wants customers to be able to query the supply chain to learn exactly where anything is at anytime.

For now, warehouse logistics is a big part of the value proposition. The company's mobile robotic shuttles move in patterns inspired by leaf-cutter ants (Latin name Atta), and Gravelle's obsession with ant colonies led CNBC to dub the company "Amazon's ant-sized competition." It is a comparison Gravelle does not shy away from – in fact he says he was motivated to start Attabotics because he thinks his team can create supply chain automation that can ultimately be better than Amazon's.

Gravelle's goal is to give smaller retailers a way to compete with Amazon by sharing a digital supply chain platform, as brick and mortar retailers share resources in a mall. He says Microsoft is the perfect cloud partner because unlike Amazon and Google, Microsoft is not involved in retailing, so Attabotics does not end up competing with its customers.

A good fit
Gravelle said Microsoft's edge and IoT services are a good fit for Attabotics in other ways as well. He said Microsoft has the private LTE service he wants, coupled with edge servers and IoT platforms. "With Microsoft it is not just the private LTE and the edge box and Azure Sphere, it is their IoT Central, which is a platform on Azure that allows the transmission of IoT info across broad networks," Gravelle said. "We have near real-time monitoring of our robotic assets remotely because of that whole suite of technology."

Clearly, private LTE is just one part of Microsoft's enterprise connectivity play, but it is a growing part. The software giant's recent purchase of Affirmed Networks gives it a proprietary virtual evolved packet core that it can offer to private network customers. Within a few weeks of announcing the Affirmed purchase, Microsoft said it will also buy Metaswitch, a respected leader in network function virtualization. Microsoft's newly acquired telecom technology, coupled with its suite of edge computing solutions, position it to support enterprises that want to deploy their own wireless networks using publicly available spectrum in the 3.5GHz band in the US.

"The growth potential in all these industries is private network, whether it be manufacturing or in our case supply chain," said Gravelle. "So there's a lot of keen interest to see who's going to be the first players to start deploying and that's where Microsoft got in on their managed platform: IoT, private LTE and Edgebox is a turnkey solution for a myriad of different industries."

US deployment
Attabotics is helping one of its unnamed US retail customers pilot private LTE in Los Angeles. Gravelle said the network is running on one section of one project. The plan is to convert all of the site, and then all of that customer's sites, to private LTE.

"Our roadmap going forward is to abandon 900MHz and go to encrypted endpoint IoT over private network," Gravelle said. "We're looking forward to the 5G networks as well because they're actually much, much faster than the LTE networks."


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