Category Archives: Innovation

Rise of the Drones

Rise of the Drones

In one of my recent LinkedIn posts, I dropped a link to another post about drones. The suggestion in that article was that in a very short space of time we have moved (in non-military applications) from drones as expensive toys, to drones with some serious capability and the prospect of having some innovative applications to modern day problems.

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I’m certainly one of the people who believe that we are currently standing at the precipice of a major technical revolution in this area. The world of drones has the potential to open up innumerable possibilities and real world applications. Media coverage would suggest startups are taking full advantage since drones are now easily accessible, affordable, relatively simple to fly and have the capability to carry meaningful payloads due to advancements in tech miniaturisation. There are now even books available on the subject.

The FAA estimates that more than one million people received drones as Xmas presents this year, and one can only assume that this figure is set to rise next Xmas as drone popularity increases and hobbyists as well as entrepreneurs start investigating the technologies required to power, fly and guide drones. Additionally, the FAA now requires that all drone owners register their aircraft before flying them in US airspace. For sure, this approach will be adopted here in the UK as more UAV flyers take to the air and risk colliding with other aircraft in restricted airspace.

So, how did it all come about, why drones and why now? I have alluded to it above (tech miniaturisation). Simply, several incremental advancements  in technology, mostly focused on either cost reduction, weight reduction (often both), or an increase in access to a particular component have resulted in the ability to produce decent performing drones, at a price that won’t melt the credit card.

A great example of this kind of research can be seen at The University of Glasgow where an ex-colleague of mine (Dr David Anderson) who supervises the Micro Air Systems Technology (MAST) laboratory has been using 3-D printing to design and build miniature UAVs for “research and investigation of small-scale autonomous vehicles and their associated technologies”.

It’s also no surprise that smart phone tech has played its part. Low cost accelerometers and gyroscopes been available for years, both of which are necessary for  stabilisation, attitude and referencing systems. Satellite technology too, has improved. The Russian made Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) is system that works alongside Global Positioning System (GPS) to provide position information to compatible devices.

With an additional 24 satellites to utilize, GLONASS compatible receivers can acquire satellites up to 20% faster than devices that rely on GPS alone. There is no coincidence that the world’s market leader in low-cost, civilian drone manufacturer, DJI has GLONASS capability in it’s most popular drones.

What are the applications?
You don’t have to look too far to see that there is simply a plethora of potential applications. National Geographic has a great article on 5 surprising uses of drones: hurricane hunting, 3-D mapping, wildlife protection, farming and search and rescue.

Of course Amazon have been talking about drone delivery for a while now and in Mumbai, Francesco’s Pizzeria has successfully delivered a pizza using a drone. Techworld lists a further 16 uses in our day-to-day lives from mail delivery, through oil platform inspection to construction, media and government. It’s difficult to see where drones couldn’t play a useful part to some degree in our lives.

What’s next?
An exponential-type rise in production and adoption of drones and associated technology I think is a high probability. A whole new infrastructure will have to be put in place to facilitate drone usage in industry. Drone ports could become commonplace. Houses may have drone landing pads and/or capture and secure systems built onto the rooftops. Parents might hire drone firms to keep watch on their kids (or spouses) from a safe and invisible distance. Undoubtedly UK air law will have to set regulations and the CCA already offers a UAV licence which is currently required before drones can be used commercially.

Conferences such as Interdrone are springing up all over the place. There is literally a buzz in the air in tech communities and for the first time in a few years there is again something to be super excited about in civilian aerospace.

Forums and sub-reddits, already have thousands of enthusiastic contributors. Instead of build-your-own PC, it’s now build-your-own drone. Geeks are now digging into flight controllers, rotor configurations and writing apps for real-world vehicles and real-life applications. Drone Meetups are showcasing new models and awesome flying skills. Hopefully a new generation of post-millenials, tech-kids will grow up with aspirations of flight and aerospace engineering. It would be great to see UK businesses at the forefront of this new mini-revolution.

The rise of the drones is upon us. Most likely they won’t make the world any safer or more dangerous; but they might just change the rules of the game.

Moving to the Cloud – Part 1 of 3

Part One – Defining the Hybrid Cloud

Earlier this year when I blogged ‘ten trends to influence IT in the next five years‘, one of the trends I mentioned has been written about on quite a few occasions in the last few months in various web articles and white papers. That particular trend is the use of the ‘Hybrid Cloud’ and it seems to be increasingly catching the attention of the tech evangelists who are keen to spread the word and radicalise the non-believers as I discovered in a recent Cloudshare webinar.

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A little more research on the topic led me to discover that there is a sort of reluctance to adopt cloud (development) initiatives in general. Like most people I had just assumed that cloud-based architectures were creating a new technology storm and in a few years almost everything would be built, developed, hosted and run in a multitude of geographical locations by thousands of VM instances, created and destroyed in seconds. It appears this may not be the case and I find that seven months later, (that’s a long time in IT), the transition has simply not happened, or to be more precise, not at the ‘rate’ expected by cloud aficionados who have been talking about a grandiose move of technology in that direction for the last few years.

My gut feeling is that in general, cloud computing in the tech community is still not a well understood concept, at least from a ‘development tool’, point-of-view and this has logically hindered the move away from traditional development to cloud-centric infrastructures and environments. I have spent some time reading about the pros and cons of moving development to a cloud-based solution and whilst I am a avid supporter of the concept, the best approach for an organisation isn’t always straightforward and will almost certainly involve one of the toughest challenges that can be faced in IT, a cultural change in the workplace and a paradigm shift in the mindset of the developers.

To make a move to the cloud for development and test purposes, people have to think about doing things in a different way. There are other potential barriers, but this is likely to be the one that poses the greatest threat to starting out on the road to eventual development, deployment and testing in the cloud. In general Gartner defines a hybrid cloud service as a cloud computing service that is composed of some combination of private, public and community cloud services, from different service providers [1]. Whilst many of the large public cloud service providers also provide a private cloud facility, I expect that many organisations still prefer to provide their own private cloud implementation since this appears to give a higher degree of security, or at the very least facilitates the storage of data in a local datacentre.

There are quite a few benefits of a hybrid cloud but the obvious one is that it enables the owner take advantage of the larger resources that a public cloud might offer, but still store and maintain private data in a manner where it should be safe from malicious attack and/or theft. Of course there are some organisations whose entire business could exist in a public cloud, but based on my experience this is still not a concept that businesses are truly happy with and certainly within a lot of enterprise or government organisations there is a preference to at least have their production system hosted in a private cloud.

In summary, my concept of a hybrid cloud is one where an organisation has developed its own private cloud for their production (Prod) system and are happy to use the services of a public cloud to develop, host and run their development (Dev) and test (Test) environments. Really, what I am taking about here is moving each of these infrastructures to a cloud environment and that will form the basis of Part 3 of this blog. Part 2 coming up next, will further elaborate on the widely accepted benefits and introduce some of the negative aspects perceived with cloud computing.

Medicine Apps – The Future?

Medicine Apps

I used to be a big fan of BBC’s Horizon programme. Back in the day it was at times controversial, ground breaking and one of the few programmes on air that appealed to science-heads, engineers, futurists and like-minded people. Recently though, I think it has gone down hill a bit, becoming less high tech and ultimately attempting to gain more traction with a less tech-savy audience. However, one episode I was impressed by, really hit the nail on the head, striking a great balance between the interest of the masses (smart phones), science (medicine) and the future (healing yourself). The idea of a GP-less future is appealing, I for one am not a big fan of visiting the local GP and generally rely on a self-diagnosed blend of common sense and Paracetamol to overcome any and all ailments or sicknesses that blight my otherwise healthy’ish lifestyle.

I am aware of smart phone apps that can measure heart rate using the camera flash and camera, or the step counters that have been around for a while that tell you just how lazy you have been in only achieving 3500 steps of your daily, recommended 10000. Additionally doctors actually use apps like Epocrates or Medscape to help them prescribe drugs and of course there are loads of reference materials type apps. But this isn’t what I’m talking about, well not completely, this is only the start and when we introduce near field communication technology then the potential for apps and medical applications, sky rockets.

Horizon presented the case of one particular doctor who had a whole host of apps and associated gadgets that allows for a direct, quick and accurate monitoring of various body variables (for lack of a better term). A smart phone with metal connectors on the back was a point-in-case where the user upon pressing their thumbs on the contacts was presented with a real-time electrocardiogram readout of their heart rate and associated functions. In the case where the user is a sufferer of diabetes a near-field device containing a tiny needle could be used to monitor blood sugar levels and present this on the screen of the smart phone in an app that looked familiar and was intuitive to use. The important thing here to recognise is that users are already very familiar with their apps and so introducing an app for medical/self-diagnosis purposes, even if it also requires the use of a near-field technology device shouldn’t to be an overwhelming technology experience. The point is, people are already well accustomed to using their smart phone for a wide variety of things and as near-field communication becomes increasing popular people may turn to using their smart phones for self-diagnosis and potentially alerting medical services in the event of an emergency.

Froma  fitness point-of -view, some of my friends have tried the ‘couch to 5k’ app or as it is now known ‘C25K’ and it has actually worked, providing a scheduled plan of running workouts that ensure new runners do not push too much and injure themselves, but also guiding them to their goal of running 5k without stopping. There are calorie counters and diet plans, kettlebell workouts and yoga instructors all available to give advice on how to get healthy, stay fit, or just inform you that you can avoid an array of common illnesses brought about by unhealthy lifestyles; in other words preventative medicine. With knowledge comes power and with power comes the chance to change one’s life, so maybe it’s time we all tried to ‘get physical’ with an app.

“Good Morning Vietnam!” – A Viable Outsourcing Model?

Outsourcing

The line made famous by the movie of the same title and staring Robin Williams is one that may be familiar to many and was made in an era when post-Vietnam war flicks were popular. The country itself was still suffering badly from the effects of a twenty year war and whilst the western world basked in the glory of an economic boom, Vietnam lacked the consumables and creature comforts that a lot of us took for granted. Basic facilities like decent housing, proper medicines and consumer goods were scarce and available only to those with money probably gained from illicit wartime dealings. Since the countryside was ravaged by explosives and poisonous chemicals, agriculture was slow to recover and this only compounded the problems the country was experiencing. General management was corrupt and inept, or both; and the cost of the military occupation of Cambodia was consuming the national purse at an alarming rate. In 1987 the year that ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ was shot, the standard of living was unstable with manual workers, civil servants, armed forces personnel and labourers all experiencing serious economic difficulties in their everyday lives. Food and fuel rationing was reinstated in many parts of the country as the economy really struggled to get to its feet. Things were looking very gloomy indeed.

Vietnam did have an incredibly strong work ethic with countless generations having spent 10 to 15 hours a day in the rice fields and whilst that drive to succeed still exists the younger generation not wanting to follow literally in their parents footsteps flocked to the cities in search of a new life. It’s a story seen the world over, the new generation were eager to posses mobile phones, TVs, computers and game stations which were starting to flood the country. Of course when these goods appeared on the scene so too did industries to service them. This is where our story becomes a little more interesting, at least from a tech point-of-view. With the inevitable modernisation came an increase in demand for the higher end goods and tech gadgets, and many ‘modern’ businesses started to instantiate themselves within the new and fast expanding economy. The country had a burning desire to join the rest of the developed world, to educate the children and promote business start-ups and economic trade.

On a recent visit to Vietnam and reading various websites on my return, I think that things have moved on considerably and rapidly. Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are enjoying a mini-explosion in the tech industry and students are leaving university with degrees in computing science and subsequently taking up jobs in air conditioned offices in the city. The IT industry in general is posting year-on-year growth rates of 25-35%, some 3 to 5 times higher than the GDP and has done so since the early part of the last decade. But what’s really interesting is the fact that Vietnam is vying to become a substantial player in the offshore outsourcing market. It’s well know that India has been incredibly successful in this arena for some time now, but as costs increase, it is a less lucrative prospect for technical outsourcing.

IBM for example have already jumped into Vietnam with both feet and currently have their biggest offshore delivery centre located there. Vietsoftware, Hanoi’s second largest outsourcing company is enjoying an extremely successful run;  its founders having studied and worked in Australia and Europe being well aware of the kind of outsourcing model that works well for the western world. There are few companies with greater than 1000 employees, but one that has 1200 is called TMA and being one of the most successful in the country, have said that they earned more than $22 million dollars in 2012. The founder’s husband, yes that’s right, this company was started by a lady, said that their ambition for TMA was “to be one of the top offshore developers and help put Vietnam on the world map of offshore development by exemplary quality and customer focus”. Yes we have heard this kind of talk before, but with plenty of failed Indian outsource examples to learn from, one can’t help but think that this is a success story that will last and lead by example.

Outsourcing startups In Vietnam are not without facing challenges though and India still remains a strong competitor on two fronts. Obviously the experience of having succeeded in the outsourcing market is prevalent in areas such as Bangalore, the tech-hub of India. Additionally, India has strong English skills and in fact far exceeds Vietnam in this area, even though English is on the curriculum of most decent schools. It is still difficult to find IT talent in Vietnam and this has been one of the limiting factors on progress, especially when there are one or two big companies that tend to hoover up all the available talent. This is starting to be offset though by the sheer numbers of students taking computing science degrees, since 2006 the number of students in this faculty has increased by something like 70%.

Many people have said that the current economic bubble that Vietnam is experiencing will burst, however the response in the outsourcing industry is that most of the revenue is from foreign countries and it is those countries upon which they are reliant and not the continual generation of new, internal business. Whatever the case, Vietnam is an exciting prospect for outsourcing and a number of the main players have opened as many as six offices worldwide with plans to expand still further. I can only welcome the newly emerging businesses into to the world of consulting where getting the next customer is always a challenge and relying on repeat business is becoming ever more risky.

Outliers Found in Chennai Airport

Outliers

Recently, on a visit to India and Sri Lanka I was passing through the decidedly dated but somewhat quaint airport of Chennai. Actually, quaint is probably an optimistic description created from a fond memory. As I recall I was over-tired and an incapable of caring what the airport was like, I was more interested in hopping on a plane and getting out of there. In reality, I suspect that Chennai is better described as an airport where ‘minimally functional’ meets ‘just about clean’ and the whole building appears to exist in a bygone era where the smell of nicotine mixes incongruously with left-over floor polish and the starch of manically pressed uniforms.

Out of a desperate need to pick up a book to consume for the rest of the trip, I traipsed around for a while and happened upon a rather odd bookshop that also sold all sorts of holiday tat. As I walked in, a quick glance around dashed my hopes of finding anything remotely interesting. Yes it was OK for fans of Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins or even Hindi pulp; and of course there was the ubiquitous and endless supply of self-help stuff, the kind written by people with pseudo-science credentials and degrees purchased on eBay. There were shelves upon shelves of plain old mumbo-jumbo, [that reminds me, see ‘How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions’ by Francis Wheen; it’s another excellent read], where the sheer abundance of stupidity on show was overwhelming. I had just finished the most excellent The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz which was so fictionally fantastic that I had pre-decided to look for something a little different, a non-fiction book, something not too heavy, but easily digestible and hopefully interesting enough to keep me going for a week or so. I didn’t think my chances were good, perhaps 7% at best.

After browsing for some time I had just about given up, the air-con wasn’t quite making it and I was already formulating a plan in the back of my mind to go kill some time examining the finer Whiskey specimens in the nearby off-duty outlet. As I turned to leave something caught my eye, a book called ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell. It immediately rang a bell since it was recommended to me some months earlier by a work colleague. I had even made a note of it with my online note catcher and had since forgotten to buy it. At first glance it definitely seemed to be interesting and after I briefly skimmed a few random pages, I decided that it was going to be a pretty easy read, ideal for relaxing on the beach in the week ahead. So, with little other choice evident, and patience rapidly running out, I handed over the requisite number of rupees and left the shop, not without a hint of satisfaction having found what I hoped to be a hidden gem discovered in a mountain of unreadable trash. With hindsight, I now realise I had actually discovered an ‘outlier’.

A simple definition an outlier is ‘A value far from most others in a set of data’, [1]. In other words it is an abnormality in an otherwise ‘normal’ set of data. The book asks questions like, how can we apply the term to people, what determines who an outlier is and how did they get to that point in the first instance? Malcolm Gladwell attempts to define and reason what an outlier is and provides good evidence and examples to support his claims. The book is largely divided into three sections, Opportunity, Legacy and an Epilogue which describes the success story of Malcolm’s family by citing examples of outliers in his ancestry. Since my business is IT, I was particularly interested in the sections dealing with Bill Gates, Bill Joy and various other massively successful people who cut their teeth during the birth of the home computing industry.

In the first section, ‘Opportunity’, Gladwell illustrates that it is opportunity that is the first step towards success, and gives the example of Bill Gates who “says that unique access to a computer at a time when they were not commonplace helped him succeed. Without that access, Gladwell states that Gates would still be ‘a highly intelligent, driven, charming person and a successful professional’, but that he might not be worth US$50 billion”. [2].

Another interesting point illustrated in the book is the concept of the 10000 hour rule. This is a theory which claims that it takes 10000 hours of practice before a level of exceptional ability can be achieved and presents numerous examples of musicians, chess grandmasters, software programmers, writers, sports men and women etc. who would (probably) not have achieved their level of greatness had it not been for the endless hours spent practicing at home, in the office or in the sports arena. Bill Gates is again used as an example and it is shown that by the time the home computing industry really started to take off, Bill Gates was one of very few people in the entire world who had already put in 10000 hours of programming and had that experience to hand. Opportunity meets hard work resulting in success is not surprising but it is presented in an interesting and captivating manner. It is Gladwell’s intention to make us think about the factors that contribute in a major way to life’s successes and that is the real beauty of the book.

The second section deals with ‘Legacy’, as in cultural legacy and how the moral codes of generations gone by can and do, still influence the behaviour of people today. For me the most interesting example was Korean Air and their disastrous legacy of fatal air crashes, before an American flight training firm turned the whole operation around by retraining the crews in a manner that was wholly different to the ingrained, old-school attitudes of previous aircrews. Since the completion of that programme of work, apparently not a single Korean aircraft has been lost and the airline is now as safe to fly with as any other.

Gladwell argues that legacy also can be used to illustrate why western cultures are continually outperformed by eastern cultures in math and basically states that this is due to the fact that in certain Easter cultures there is an extremely robust work ethic, typified by the Chinese proverb, “No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich”. What this really means is that a lot of hard work will eventually pay off and this is borne out in official international math exam results. Again, pretty obvious stuff one might say, but why then do we not implement similar work ethics such as summer schools where children can continue to learn instead of spending time gaming their summers away. There is also good evidence to suggest that schools from deprived areas can produce high achieving students simply by modifying their work ethic and ensuring that students have a full study schedule during the summer break for example. Google the Knowledge Is Power Programme (KIPP), New York for more information on this.

Finally, the book provides an example of Gladwell’s own family and the opportunity that was provided to them a number of generations back, and of his own 10000 hours spent writing over a period of ten years before he eventually made it as a successful author culminating in several books on the New York Times best seller list. Malcolm Gladwell has definitely given us something to think about here and I have alluded to only those parts that stick in my mind in this blog. There is much, much more, but what is really interesting is the fact that no one ever makes it to success alone, rather it is a combination of opportunity, hard work and a determination which could be provided by a culturall legacy which we thought had been lost which all collude to produce an individual’s success.

We can’t always be sure that opportunity will come knocking, but we can certainly be prepared to rise to the challenge when it does. I believe that we should all think of ourselves as outliers in some sense, each with our own opportunities and cultural identities all contributing to one unique individual, and all with a potential for greatness.