How We Built Witekio’s Connected Crane

Homepage How We Built Witekio’s Connected Crane

The story of our connected crane started in October 2019. The Witekio team was commissioned by our parent company Avnet Embedded to create a demonstration for CES, the famed Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. The demonstration had to illustrate the breadth of the Avnet group’s entire IoT offer with a couple of strict technology constraints: 

  • We had to use Microsoft Windows 10 IoT Core 
  • We had to use Avnet’s IoTConnect 
  • We had to use the NXP i.MX8 (MaaxBoard MX8M electronic board) 

And, of course, it had to come together fast. 

This is the story of how we answered Avnet’s challenge, the demonstration that we built for CES, and the way that demonstration grew from a software project into a real-life, 3D-printed, working model of a connected crane. 

Brainstormin’ Across the Universe 

For any trade show, the difficulty faced by the vendor is to choose how best to illustrate their software know-how in a concrete way. This calls for a concrete example – the closer to real life, the better – so that a visitor to the company booth can imagine themselves benefiting from the software. 

To choose the best example use case, we started with a brainstorm. These sorts of sessions are always enriching experiences because they allow everyone to step out of the daily grind and give free rein to their imagination. It is a real moment of free exchange within a team and the ideas that emerge can be incredibly valuable.  

The idea that caught the most attention and that, in the end, we settled on was a connected crane. We planned to build a demo that illustrated the possibilities for remotely managing a fleet of cranes. We would be able to draw on the knowledge that some of the Witekio engineers had established working with one of our clients in that industry, Manitowoc. We knew that the connected crane would be a great example of the way that the feedback of field information toa. Service hosted in the cloud could enable remote monitoring of a fleet of devices. It would also offer the chance to illustrate some of the associated and high-value add-on services. 

We had a perfect idea – now to put together a plan. 

Two Elements to Build + One Out-Of-The-Box Idea 

We planned to design a demo that would immerse a visitor in the crane operator’s cabin. To achieve this, we needed to develop two elements:  

  1. a crane cockpit, with a 360° view of what the crane operator would see when at the controls 
  2. a supervision screen allowing remote management of a fleet of cranes.  

While we would stick to the technical constraints that Avnet had placed on us when it came to controlling the crane from the cockpit we got a little creative. I had sent the weekend playing on an old Nintendo Wii with my son and, on returning to the office, it occurred to me that the Wii’s joystick, the Nunchuk, was perfect for the crane project. What’s more, it would be simple (and fun!) to do a little hacking and interface the Nunchuk to the hardware. 

The Nunchuk joystick would power the rotation of the crane as the user tilted the Nunchuk to the right or to the left. Managing the position of the crane’s caret as well as the height of the hook was possible via the dual up-down buttons of the NunchukThus, with a single handheld remote control, the crane operator would be able to change these three key parameters of the crane.  

Our key hardware choice complete, we were ready to start writing the software. 

Developing Development Story 

We quickly pulled a team together with the experience in the technologies central to this demonstration. 

Working in IoTConnect was a challenge but a rewarding one. At the time the environment was still under development and didn’t have extensive technical documentation to support us. Fortunately, though, the team at Softweb, the publisher behind the solution based on Azure IoT technology, was willing and able to step in and help when we got ourselves stuck. 

Working on the MaaxBoard and porting it to Windows 10 IoT Core was also a challenge. Such porting is not yet commercialized so I was in charge of planning and then finalizing this development before sharing the system image with the other Witekio teams. 

Our Nunchuk controller isn’t exactly standard fare for the MaaxBoard but with an electronic extension board we could make it work, and we developed a hardware abstraction layer for the Nunchuk to access. 

Next up was the development of an application in UWP for Windows 10 IoT Core for the management of the Nunchuk, data generation, and uploading that data to the IoTConnect cloud. Of course, we also had to develop the graphical elements, too. 

As we got closer to CES the pressure started to mount. Avnet needed to test the software on the hardware that they had gathered together for the CES show and this created its own stress: I can’t explain why but sometimes new software just works on one side of the Atlantic! Luckily, though, this was not one of those times and an email from the local team informed us that everything was working fine. Now the Avnet team would finish off the mechanical elements and proceed with the installation. 

We were ready to go. 

CES 2020 

The big day had arrived. 

We had shipped the software from Witekio, the local Avnet USA team had assembled the crane operator’s cockpit and we were excited to be bringing our crane to the world’s biggest electronics show. We couldn’t wait to see how the Avnet team and the thousands of visitors arriving to walk the halls in Las Vegas would react to our demonstration. 

While it was great fun for us to build, there was still a business case behind the project: we wanted to demonstrate what was possible with the core technologies we had created our demo with. In the end, many connected objects and machines have similar demands even if there are always variable constraints and configuration differences. We wanted to show that we had an off-the-shelf solution ready for and adaptable to many use cases. These software bricks – while powering a connected crane – could just as easily power any other connected device or machine – and of course, it would be a good idea to contract with Witekio to put it all together! 

The CES demonstration was a success and, while it would have been easy to take that same connected crane demo to other shows around the world, it’s not the Witekio way to rest on our laurels. Instead, we wanted to go bigger and better. 

The budget didn’t stretch to buying an actual crane to bring along to our next event…but if we couldn’t buy a crane, maybe we could build one?  

And that’s how the team committed to building a scale model of a crane, one that would be large enough to be visible and draw a crowd at our next trade show. 

Mechanical Challenges, Software Challenges 

Do you know how some people who have never written software just assume it is easy to do? Well, the same is true of some software developers who have never manufactured a crane before but conclude, ‘how hard can it be’? Suffice it to say that it took longer than expected to manufacture the different parts of the model crane because it was just so complicated. 

We faced issues installing what is known as the crane’s linkage, the cables that enable the movement of the crane’s caret and hook. We needed them to run up inside the crane because the motor had been installed at the bottom of the crane. However, our choice of a strong and light fishing line hampered our efforts here, and the line got stuck regularly and did not allow for movement in any direction. This problem was accentuated further when the crane was turned to one side or the other. The line would wrap around parts that were positioned on the crane’s axis of rotation at the top of the crane’s mast 

We needed to find a viable technical solution so that the hook could move correctly. We decided, therefore, to mount the motor on top of the crane’s jib in a counterweight box. Even if this had the effect of being less aesthetically pleasing, it was a compromise we had to make. 

Beyond getting our model to work, though, we also had some challenges when it came to the software side of things. We installed engine boards with the support of the team at NXP, the supplier of the electronic boards and a longtime partner of Witekio.  

The management of the engines is carried out by firmware for the iMXRT1052 EVK board (Evaluation Kit). This board has been equipped with a power control module for the NXP engine and requires an additional signal adaptation board to be compatible with the Evaluation Kit.  

As the engines were selected for their power and dimensions, it was necessary to build control profile for each engine, tooOur model had two different types of motors:  

  • The first type allows for the rotation of the cranejib and is equipped with a feedback system on the exact position of the axis, which is essential in order to position the jib at the desired angle. 
  • The second type manages the movement of the careand the hook, it has no position feedback or speed.  

The tuning required us to know the exact characteristics of the motors. Setting up the motor control sequences was a point of real stress because – without a motor capable of moving the crane – the demonstration would be of no interest to anyone. 

We were edging closer to the next big event for the year, Embedded World 2020, and the pressure was on. 

Here are two of the three motors the system has:

January, February, Lockdown… 

Embedded World 2020 was due to take place in late March but, just 10 days out from the event, the Avnet leadership team made the call to pull out of the trade fair. The full impact of the coronavirus was not yet known but already countries were coming to grips with a rising ride of seriously ill people. Lockdowns and quarantines followed, whole economies came to a virtual standstill, and the connected crane project was put on hold. 

Witekio’s model crane would not go to Germany for Embedded World in March, and it wouldn’t go to the SIDO show in France in May, either. However, as the lockdowns ended and when SIDO was rescheduled for September, we saw an opportunity to deliver the demo that we knew would make an even bigger impact than its V1 had in Las Vegas a few months before. 

The team got to work finding more elegant solutions to the mechanical and software engineering challenges that had nearly flummoxed us before going into lockdown. We 3D printed modified parts for the model crane, tested them, experimented time and again, and then re-printed new parts in search of the optimal solution. It was a long process, but we would eventually find success. 

We found a way to reposition the crane’s motors to allow for a smoother routing of the cables that would set the crane’s careand hook in motion. With some adjustments and after a few attempts, we built a functional counterweight. We positioned the motors in a reception box attached to the back of the counterweight and everything started falling into place. 

Things were moving forward but would we be ready in time for SIDO in September? 

Out of Lockdown and Straight to SIDO 

We reinforced the team in August 2020 to ensure that we would be up and running in time for SIDO in the first week of September. With everyone committed to the cause we managed to solve the final minor problems relating to the operation of the crane in just a week, and we were finally ready to go. 

Ahead of the opening of the event, we arrived on-site for the installation of the cranes at the Witekio booth. This is always exciting as it is at this moment that the real value of what has been achieved over the last months is clear to see. We set up two cranes and their respective cockpits, one on each side of our booth. Between the two we erected a large screen displaying the supervision system. 

Talking Cranes and Other Connected Technology 

“So,” asked one SIDO visitor, “You guys develop crane systems?” 

“No,” was our reply, “We’re a software engineering company that specializes in the creation and development of connected products. They can be microwave ovens, smartwatches, vending machines, drones, cars or even cranes. The challenges are often similar even if the technologies we use are not, so we can build from the software bricks we have and choose the best technology adapted to your use case – that’s what makes us special. Thanks to our experts and their keen attention to technological developments, their curiosity and their practical experience, we can match the best technologies to the needs of our clients. Now…would you like to try driving a crane?” 

In the end, the cranes we presented at SIDO were simply a showcase for Witekio’s technical and technological engineering. This project allowed us to tackle challenges ranging from software architecture to cloud infrastructure, mechanical engineering through to choosing the right colours for a 3D printed model crane. Despite a global pandemic, a pan-national lockdown, and the challenge of building something as a team when connections are only possible via video call, we delivered a fully functional demonstration of our expertise that not only delighted but even inspired SIDO attendees. 

Many thanks to Virginie, Lucie, Justine, Jim, Daniel, Philippe, David, Adrien, Peter, Mirjan, Imran, Julien, Remi, Olivier, Leo, and Jean-Vincent for making this demo a reality, and to my son for letting me borrow his Wii Nunchuk. 

Nicolas Besson - IoT Expert and Architect
14 September 2020