'Talkative' business objects

The new sensor network technology developed for the EU-funded CoBIs project is going a step beyond existing RFID systems by embedding business logic in physical entities. For example, chemical drums could warn operators when the storage limit in a warehouse is reached. CoBIs could become commercially available within three to five years.

Imagine barrels of chemicals 'talking' to each other to improve safety or smart shelves that automatically log inventory changes. These are some of the goals of the EU-funded CoBIs project (for "Collaborative Business Items"). Its new sensor network technology is going a step beyond existing RFID systems by transferring tasks from resource-intensive back-end systems to systems embedded in the products themselves. For example, chemical drums could warn operators when the storage limit in a warehouse is reached. If all goes well, CoBIs, with its middleware components and an application development environment, could become commercially available within three to five years.

The CoBIs project, which started in 2004, will cost 4.7 million euro, including 3 million euro from the EU, and has attracted some large industrial partners, such as BP, Infineon or SAP.

Here are some short quotes from IST Results about the project.

"What we are doing is making sensor network technology useful to businesses by creating a system that responds to the need for real-time information. It allows goods to act and react automatically to changes at the local level, and warn operators of the change," CoBIs coordinator Stephan Haller at SAP Research in Germany explains.
Unlike most RFID systems – an emerging technology in its own right – that mainly work passively to distinguish between tagged objects with their own unique identifier, CoBIs-enabled objects work actively by incorporating embedded sensing, computing and wireless short-range communication. They can monitor the state and environmental conditions of the goods they are attached to, communicate peer-to-peer and collaborate to observe conditions that no single sensor would be able to detect, and they can feed the information into back-end systems automatically within the project’s service-oriented architecture.

Below is a schematic overview of the CoBIs distributed service-oriented architecture (Credit: CoBIs project).

CoBIs service-oriented architecture

This architecture should enable the flexible and, at least partly, automated composition/decomposition and management of services, in order to delegate certain parts of the supported business logic functionality to smart physical entities. Service orientation is a very desirable approach, because it allows seamless integration in today's business software, which is built more and more in a service-oriented way. Services have the advantage of providing information throughout the enterprise in a platform and language independent manner.

And here is an example of these "collaborative business items" at work. This is an illustration of the self aware chemical drums scenario (Credit: CoBIs project).

CoBIs in action

As mentioned earlier, the motivation for this scenario is to prevent specific incidences in the Oil & Gas industry by the detection of potentially hazardous circumstances. "Self-aware drums" of chemicals range in size from 1 to 50 litres. They will be equipped with CoBIs nodes mainly to store and retrieve information on the drums' specific content, chemical composition and volume as well as to recognize dangerous situations autonomously. This functionality will be used to generate safety-critical alerts that trigger manual or automated processes implemented by a backend system that observes the facilities' safety.

Other usages are possible, as IST Results reports.

In retail, where RFID is already being used to track inventory and prevent theft, CoBIs could help solve the RFID reader collision problem. RFID readers equipped with CoBIs nodes coordinate duty cycles and power levels autonomously with each other. This allows for a physical reorganisation of the shelves without the need for reconfiguring the RF parameters manually. The 'adaptive smart shelves' concept is due to be tested by the project partner Infineon in Austria later this year.
There is also the possibility to use CoBIs to create smart clothing that could be used to protect workers in hazardous environments.

For more information about this project and other possible uses of the technologies it helped to develop, you should read this CoBIs Overview (PDF format, 12 pages, 2.07 MB) or a more technical description (PDF format, 59 pages, 894 KB). The above illustrations were extracted from this second document.

The industrial and academic partners seem confident that this technology could be soon commercially deployed. However, with middleware components coming from SAP, it remains to be seen how many companies or industries will use it.

Sources: IST Results, March 7, 2006; and various web sites

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