The debate is now moving to whether the current coronavirus (as I write this, more than a hundred people have died) is more virulent than the earlier SARS virus with suggestions that it is even spreading before symptoms are evident. Some comparisons are also being made about the influenza pandemic in 1918 when between 20 and 40 million died near the end of World War I. (More people died in a single year here than in the horrendous Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351).
And we have Cyber Viruses of course
Naturally, there are a plethora of millions of cyber viruses being spread on a second-by-second basis through the internet. These are absolutely horrendously destructive to electronic media and have been known to shatter longstanding businesses and careers. But fortunately, with training and varied isolation techniques combined with a dose of common sense and pro-activeness, they can be kept at bay.
Working Online is a Win-Win-Win on So many Levels
In addition to avoiding the spread of biological viruses, the rapid growth in broadband, the need to reduce travel and accommodation costs as well as reduce harmful emissions (from travel), makes the whole topic of working and learning remotely very relevant today. It’s good to collaborate remotely without the need to physically travel — you can increase productivity, save time and money while reducing your company’s carbon footprint. As well as (today) avoiding spreading harmful diseases.
A Growing Need for Remote collaboration and Online Learning
With the growth of working online, there is a growing demand for remote configuration and testing of systems often performed by teams of engineering professionals collaborating virtually, while scattered at geographically remote locations. Admittedly, there are technical challenges of remote control and configuration on a real-time basis and there is a heightened risk of security breaches with catastrophic consequences for a remote automation project for example. However, the field of remote collaboration and configuration is growing fast.
Needless to say – if you can collaborate online, you can undoubtedly learn online. This is resulting in an explosion in online training and education.
Working in Teams
As engineering professionals, we tend to work in teams. This is often the sales pitch used to encourage the use of a new family of tools allowing for communication, collaboration and coordination. Without the requirement for physical travel.
The market of remote collaboration can be segmented by price and bandwidth requirements and ranges from (at the low end of bandwidth) email/instant messaging/phone calls/audio conferencing / webcasting/web conferencing/video conferencing and the big one – telepresence. The web conferencing is the tool that offers particularly useful features at an affordable cost.
Three Main Functionalities of Remote Collaboration
Remote collaboration is not only just about technology but has three main functionalities:
* Communication – the ability to exchange information between participants
* Co-ordination – the ability to coordinate tasks among the geographically scattered team
* Collaboration – the ability to achieve team goals.
Typical tools range from Gotomeeting, Livemeeting, Electromeet and WebEx. These allow typical web conferencing at an affordable cost. The main methods of delivery of web conferencing are typically using slides, audio, text chat, video streaming, use of a whiteboard, sharing of programs, file transfers and web touring.
In addition, the feature of simultaneously performing remote configuration and testing of a remote site is an added benefit in some of them, and this is the area that really interests me with our research and work. This is especially helpful for our online education using remote labs scattered around the world which our students can access wherever they are located.
The benefits of remote collaboration and testing include:
* Stops the spread of biological viruses
* Good for minimizing harmful emissions
* Easy to use
* Expertise available to more sites
* Higher availability of equipment
* Access to specialized equipment
* No geographical barriers
* Minimisation of travel and accommodation costs – lower greenhouse gases
* Considerably lower costs
How can you take advantage of these tools?
* Think seriously about using remote collaboration, testing, and configuration for your next project
* If you have access to broadband on your remote sites, this makes the decision easier
* Your younger staff would be familiar and comfortable with these tools
* Pay attention to the security of your connections
* Training is required to ensure everyone is skilled at using these tools
Naturally, everyone is not going to go across to 100% remote collaboration. Agreements and contracts often need a personal touch. Informal discussions during tea breaks are difficult to replicate through the sometimes clinical internet. And naturally, critical tests and interfacing with equipment where an expert is required physically on the spot are still essential. And as we all know, in many locations, internet connections are not possible, impossibly slow or tenuous. So as with everything – there is a trade-off required between the online and physically-on-the-spot worlds.
On the topic of remote control, John Alejandro King made the joking remark, which could be one day true: If you're not scared or angry at the thought of a human brain being controlled remotely, then it could be this prototype of mine is finally starting to work.
Yours in engineering learning