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Ian Dench, CEO of Ooredoo Oman

Inside Telecom Staff

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Ian Dench, CEO of Ooredoo Oman

Telecom companies have played an integral role in keeping individuals/societies connected and informed amid COVID-19.

What were the technical and operational challenges faced by Ooredoo during the pandemic, and what solutions have provided people with reliable connectivity the most?

Our priority from the outset was threefold. First and foremost, the safety of our staff and within just a matter of days we moved everyone to working from home. Secondly, keeping our customers connected, ensuring network availability and fast internet connectivity for consumers and businesses – particularly as they too transitioned to working from home, being responsive to their urgent and immediate requests. Thirdly, supporting the government and authorities of Oman in whatever way needed or required, in particular the Health and Education Ministries, the Emergency Services and other institutions.

Almost overnight, people moved the majority of their work, studies, and lives to their homes, and there has been a much bigger reliance on the internet to keep people connected. Our ongoing heavy investment in our network meant that it was well equipped to cater to the increased data demands that this situation brought. 

Our digital transformation efforts have also paid off. We had to shut all of our stores overnight and our contact centre staff had to work from home, which naturally produced some challenges. However, we were able to keep all services fully operational with access to our contact centre, our app, eShop, and other digital channels.

What operational/organizational changes were implemented by Ooredoo during the pandemic? Are there any emerging trends in telecom that you may want to adopt as a service and/or utilize for corporate purposes? (I.e. remote employment, telehealth, AI systems etc.,)

Through our award-winning app, customers are able to pay bills, top up, subscribe to plans, seek help and much more and over the course of the lockdown, we added numerous new digital services, such as being able to update ID through the app, ordering home internet and even raising and tracking trouble tickets/complaints. Communication through social media also increased significantly, in particular, WhatsApp, where our customers can place orders and raise queries. We’ve also added multiple languages to WhatsApp to make it easier for more of our customers to contact us.

Our eShop has evolved significantly over this recent period, providing (in Arabic and English) multiple services with home delivery anywhere in the Sultanate.

We also upgraded services available to business customers through our dedicated B2B digital channels and business customers could stay in contact with their account managers.

Even though we have now re-opened our stores, we continue to provide convenient digital services, as well as over-the-counter services as before. And our contact centre is fully operational with the vast majority of people still working from home.

We launched a number of offers, discounts and freebies for our customers during the lockdown period, including free calls, extra data, faster speeds, and plenty of free add-ons. We are also providing free access to educational websites.

For businesses, we increased our bandwidth speeds to ensure employees could work from home effectively and efficiently. We also offered unlimited calls, data packages, extra speeds and much more, all of which can be accessed through the enhanced B2B app or through account managers, to make working from home easier.

Oman’s digital transformation agenda was already well on-track, but the pandemic accelerated it. The transformation that has been made under such unprecedented circumstances has been remarkable, and thanks to our resilience and adaptability, we have for the most part been able to continue our operations and serve our customers, under vastly different and unusual times.

More than ever, people have realised how much more convenient it is to do things digitally and how much value it adds to their lives and it’s unlikely they’ll want to go back. We want to continue the positive developments that have been made throughout the pandemic and use them as building blocks for a post-COVID world. That means not only strengthening our commitment to enriching our customers’ digital lives, but contributing to the economic and social prosperity of Oman, as together we strive to overcome the impacts of the pandemic and face the future with confidence.

You have recently been selected by EduFair as the official telecom partner for the virtual exhibition for Higher Education Institutes. What is the importance of participating in such endeavors?

We’re pleased to have this opportunity once again to show practical support for education as well as showcasing the many Ooredoo Business products and services that can support education and related businesses.

Supporting education is a key focus for us as part of our corporate social responsibility strategy and we believe it’s our collective responsibility to nurture the next generation of leaders. This has been supported by various initiatives, long-term educational projects and training programs, through boosting educational opportunities and incubating digital entrepreneurship

Since the pandemic, as mentioned above, we have enabled free access to educational websites and online communication applications as part of a collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), to support students’ educational needs in light of schools closing down.

Working together with government organisations and private institutions, we are helping to nurture and develop many of tomorrow’s leaders and entrepreneurs and thus support Oman’s economy.

Furthermore, it is increasingly clear that online education will become a permanent component of all education in the years ahead and high-speed internet connectivity at home, and at educational institutions, is absolutely vital. With our significant investments in Fibre, 4G and 5G technologies, we are geared towards supporting this development in Oman.

You have been named by Forbes as one of the top-ranking companies in the region. What strategic steps have you adopted to get ahead of the competition?

This latest accolade reflects the Group’s phenomenal growth and vision. Our teams around the world are working to enable and enrich the digital lives of the communities we serve by providing much needed relief measures, innovative solutions, awesome digital services and great connectivity.

The Ooredoo Group is on a mission to empower customers across our global footprint to access and enjoy the best of the Internet in a way that is personal and unique to them. We continue to invest in our networks to ensure seamless connectivity that caters to our customers’ growing digital needs. The Group is working as a real digital enabler across its markets, with the aspiration of helping people simplify their lives and enjoy exciting and rewarding digital experiences.

How will your services benefit from 5G deployment/implementation? You have already opened pre-registration for 5G at home, what are the advantages of 5G technology?

The rollout of 5G marks a significant milestone in the Sultanate’s digital transformation journey, offering significantly higher network speeds with almost zero delay, which means faster downloads and uploads, better gaming experiences and super slick HDTV streaming. We have been gearing up for 5G for some time, upgrading the backbone connectivity to cater to the faster speeds and increased data traffic. Our 5G Home Internet service is now available in 88 locations in Muscat, Al Batinah, Al Dakhliyah, Al Wusta, Al Sharkiyah and Dhofar.  This new service offers consumers speeds of up to 100 Mbps.

However, the big promise of 5G comes with the low latency and the range of industrial applications it can benefit. It’s not just about self-drive cars and flying taxis, but how everyday things can be automated. For example, in the oil and gas industry, they may utilise drones to monitor wells and pipelines, as well as the automation of thousands of sensors.

There are also IoT solutions, such as smart metering, which we have already launched on existing technology in collaboration with the National Electricity & Energy Centre for the Public Authority for Water (Diam). In fact, this was the first-of-its-kind smart metering in Oman, which eliminates the challenges faced by utility providers when collecting meter readings, particularly in isolated residential locations.

The possibilities created by the technology will impact almost every aspect of our lives, all businesses government, healthcare, education, industry and the country is ready for it. We are excited to be offering our customers this transformative technology and taking their internet usage, and lives, to a whole new level.

You have entered into an agreement with the Ministry of Education to develop a new online education platform for Oman, what are some of the plans of this new agreement?

We’re very pleased to have signed this agreement with the Ministry of Education, as part of our CSR activities for Oman, and to be playing a role in Oman’s digital transformation while helping students reach their full potential in their educational journey.

This initiative is intended to address the challenges presented by COVID-19, ensuring that education is not disrupted moving forward. Linked to Oman’s Educational Portal, the platform will create virtual classrooms for students to learn from a distance across the country as well as enable discussion forums for teachers and administrators to share best practices and monitor growth and development in line with international indexes.

The platform will include the latest educational features and tools such as an e-library. User friendly and efficient, it will also ensure students interact easily with teachers, enjoy access to learning material, have their questions and queries answered, all the while keeping track of their progress. What’s even more, the e-learning platform will be accessible on mobiles and tablets through a dedicated App. It will also enable for additional material to be uploaded to aid distant learning as well as generate reports pertaining to the services available. Making it interactive, teachers will be able to host seminars, present projects and exchange ideas and perspectives that are beneficial to students.

How do ICT solutions address energy sustainability in mega cities? How can you implement ICT technology for security to ensure customers are given the protection and privacy they need?

ICT-based mega cities are able to leverage technology to enrich the lives of their populations, improve public services, transport, traffic flows, power, water supply, waste management, security and more.  They are well known not just for the quality of life of their inhabitants but also for their ability to attract businesses and investment.

Through the Digital Oman Strategy, Oman is working on harnessing the full potential of ICT and building on the sector as part of its bid to widen its economic prospects. Moreover, the implementation of new technologies as part of the Information Technology Authority’s vision of creating a Knowledge Based Society is facilitating the successful integration of new services in our homes, places of work, and throughout the education system. These steps are creating the foundations for future smart city initiatives in the Sultanate.  

When it comes to security, protecting employees and client data should be a top priority and making sure systems are resilient, secure and redundant will be just as important — if not more important — than new features.

How is sustainability driving growth in the telecoms industry? Do you a have a Green strategy in place?

As major consumers of energy to power our network, we are continually looking to new green technologies to reduce cost and improve sustainability. We deploy Solar Energy within our network where it makes economical and commercial sense. We also use special solutions to reduce the fuel consumption for generators in a number of sites, resulting in less pollution.

Our HSE department makes sure we are as environmentally friendly as is possible on a corporate level. They are responsible for our company recycling programme, overseeing our responsible energy consumption, ensuring office efficiency by saving paper and many more activities. They also work to ensure our employees enjoy a healthy work environment.

We do emphasise the importance of corporate and personal environmental responsibility and stewardship in all our activities. We focus on empowering our staff to play an active role in the preservation and conservation of Oman’s environment and to give a helping hand to communities. This includes holding volunteer-based events like our regular beach clean-up events and we have more activities in the pipeline.

As an organization, how committed are you to social responsibility? Tell us about your more recent CSR initiatives?

Corporate Social Responsibility has remained a mainstay of Ooredoo’s promise to enrich people’s lives. The company’s CSR programme, known as Ooredoo Goodwill, has grown to encompass all areas of the community, social development, education and empowerment.

Enabling budding entrepreneurs to prosper from the internet, our Springboard program (for women) and Spring Forward program (for both men and women), champion digital entrepreneurship and help young Omani’s to get their digital businesses off the ground, whether social media, online or app-based. Last year, we awarded teams from our Springboard and Spring Forward programs a start-up budget for the first time, as we placed a greater emphasis on education and supporting Oman’s economy by helping to develop and equip Oman’s future leaders and small business owners. 

Our annual Goodwill Journey, which celebrates its 16th anniversary this year, focuses on fostering women’s empowerment, education and self-sufficiency, as well as promoting the sustainable development of communities across the country. Some of last year’s activities included popening two new women’s incubators, taking the total to 13.

In partnership with the Ministry of Social Development, our Goodwill volunteers launched a carpentry room, computer lab and sensory room at The Al-Wafa Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children in Al Amerat. Three more sensory rooms in Al Khaboura, Nizwa and Ibra were also set up during the year, as well as the design and implementation of two ‘Digital Entertainment Rooms’ for the Paediatric Cancer and Paediatric Surgery rooms at the Royal Hospital.

Making good on our promise to promote education, we continued to update and enhance our popular Digital Tutorial App. For the first time in the Sultanate, Ooredoo is also preparing activity files for students in kindergarten and pre-school, which include video clips to teach the alphabet in Arabic and English, mathematics and science, in addition to exercises and educational activities from the curricula of a number of Arab and Gulf countries.

Along the same lines, the team donated digital devices to the Abu Hamza Al Shari School in Sohar, the Al Noor Association for the Blind in Ad Dhahirah and to less fortunate families in Masirah. We also visited hospitals in Sohar, building an outdoor playground, and in Duqm where they distributed medical beds to enhance the standard of care. Equipment was also donated to the Oman Association for the Disabled in Al Buraimi and the Omani Bahjah Orphan Society in Salalah, with whom a two-year contract was signed to support the ‘Saturday Market’ in Dhofar. The weekly event provides the families of the association with a unique platform to bolster their income and showcase their talents.

When COVID-19 hit, our priorities changed and we were able to mobilise quickly to redirect our efforts and support to initiatives that helped the nationwide fight to stop the virus’ spread and mitigate its wider impacts. Since March, we have donated various medical testing supplies and equipment to a number of hospitals across Oman, have provided free data to returning students contained in quarantine and also whitelisted educational websites.

For us at Ooredoo, our core values – caring, connecting, challenging – are not simply a statement, they are something we live by, and translate into action every day, every month, every year.

We’re a diverse group of industry professionals from all corners of the world. Our desire is to provide a high-quality telecoms publication that caters to an international market, offering the latest and most relevant telecoms information to businesses, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts.

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Nigel Bayliff, CEO of AquaComms

Inside Telecom Staff

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Nigel Bayliff, CEO of AquaComms

Based on your many years of experience in the subsea cable industry, what are some of the most prevalent trends? What disruptive trends might affect your operations in the future?

The industry has seen a move away from Carrier Consortia towards smaller private consortium models, with one or two carriers. A number of ‘traditional’ system investors have moved to an asset light model, especially those based in Europe, where hyper-competition in home markets has forced a re-focus. On technology, open systems with more fibre pairs per cable (following a fibre pair investment unit model) are now the norm – they are simple to establish, straightforward to operate and allow quick decision making and flexibility. These changes support our move into offering professional services that range from the planning and design phase of a new cable project, to being the landing party through to operating the cable system to a fully outsourced model on behalf of the investors. 

You recently stated that different elements in the supply chain have had different levels of innovation. What new opportunities in technology today would you like to utilize the most?  

By way of example, repeater housing design has remained static for a few decades, with the exception of some new contender designs; more innovation is needed to create larger bodies with more compact amplification designs.  Also, vessel service life and relative infrequent new building has meant that we largely use the same techniques as ever for laying the cable; accuracy is better, but apart from surveying (with autonomous vessels) the model is still highly weather and people dependent.

The forecasted annual traffic growth for the Trans-Atlantic market in 2020 is an impressive 50%. How does Aqua Comms plan to capitalize on this growth?

Aqua Comms owns/operates two strong Atlantic routes; AEC-1 and AEC-2, we have started the process of enabling AEC-3 (more details to come throughout next year) and have plans in place for a possible AEC-4.  The huge growth rates and general market growth support a small number of independent players in this sector and we strive to be the best in both efficiency, route diversity and quality in the North Atlantic market.

In an earlier virtual roundtable, Aqua Comms directly addressed the challenges affecting telecoms during the coronavirus pandemic. Can you brief us on the main content of the roundtable? What alternative solutions have you proposed to cope in these challenging times?  

Aqua Comms established from the outset as an organization able to operate efficiently in a multi-remote scenario.  Our model combines the decades and decades of experience of our executive and management teams, with flexibility and efficiency of automation, outsourcing and remote management enablers.  We designed an organization and processes that support this, with no dependency on physical location, time zone or specific human resource.  This meant our response to the pandemic was just another simple step in this model – we did have a headquarters office, but less than 50% of the company worked there weekly.  All our team have home-office capability and we have a wide range of tools to ensure connectivity and connected-ness internally within our team, with our support partners in technology and remote activity roles and with our customers and partners.  We were able to expedite orders and deliver multiple terabits of capacity during the main lockdown period in record time to service urgent market needs using this remote-capable, efficient operating model.

How has COVID-19 affected the subsea cable industry in general? What is the economic impact of delays in deployment?  

For projects in final implementation stages (cable in ships, being laid) delays have been minimal with some inevitable disruption due to quarantine routines which has affected crew changeovers.   For projects in manufacturing stages, these seem to have seen delays due to factories closing during harsh lockdown periods but are maybe only delayed by a few months.  Projects which are in the early phases have made some progress, but physical location visits and planning for shore activity has obviously been affected. The unknowns are the projects that are aiming to get to a contractual close – typically these involve many multi-faceted whole group meetings, which have not been easy to hold virtually, to bring all factors to a conclusion so we may expect a quarter delay in this area.  By and large, the industry and our sub-sector seem to have fared very much better than many other sectors (transport, leisure, hospitality, etc.) because internet access is all the more crucial in a remote world, as caused by the pandemic.

Your North Atlantic loop offers an array of diverse services between the US and Northern Europe. Can you tell us more about the services offered with the loop and the benefits that each service yields?

The North Atlantic Loop offers connectivity services, typically 10G and 100G wavelengths, with 400G waves on the horizon, between multiple locations in the US and Northern Europe. This includes core routes such as New York to London, New York to Dublin but also now connecting New York and New Jersey to Denmark, as well connecting Ireland to the UK and Denmark on new, diverse and unique routes. These routes support the major data centre and traffic hubs across the US, the UK, Ireland and the Nordics, all of which are seeing significant growth from the content, cloud and carrier businesses.

Aqua Comms has maintained a presence in recent industry events – as seen from your participation in Subsea World. What significant insights have you gained and how did you apply them? 

As previously mentioned, it’s been gratifying to see that many of our colleagues in other companies are also coping with a remote world well, our sector is generally buoyant based on a realization that connectivity is even more important in a pandemic.  It’s been interesting to see different approaches – some companies who have enormous headcount, generally focused in many large offices, have completely reversed their policies and expect homeworking to be the new normal for them – others are aiming to go back towards an office environment more quickly.  These changes and policies need to be supported as a cultural transition, as the physical set-up often dictates how things are done culturally in such cases.  Because we established ourselves with the goal of being multi-country, a remote working enterprise with a flat structure and rapid decision lines, we have that cultural trait embedded in our core.  One other change likely is that our cooperative culture – enabling many parties to come together to build these large infrastructure projects – is also going to have to modify because the reliance on physically meeting each other a few times a year in far-off destinations is certainly suspended for the next half-year or so (still), and may never return to the way it was in the past.  The longer we operate (and cooperate) successfully in a remote model, the less likely that the past model will return to the same extent.

Your flagship product is FOCUS – Fibre Optics Cables Under the Sea. How has your product developed over the years? In what ways do you expect to see it grow in the future?

This strapline is more our philosophy, than a product in itself.  Fiber Optic Cables Under the Sea. It signifies that we choose to focus on a specific segment/layer of the telecommunications industry – that of undersea fibre optic cables, connecting countries.  We don’t focus on terrestrial fibre infrastructure, we only obtain what we need from others, to connect the sea landings to the major cities and distribution hubs.  We don’t sell any IP services, telephony services or services below a pure transport capacity.  We believe in being the very best at the very specific thing that we choose to do and never competing with our customers.

What are the implications of having Aqua Comms now directly available at 1025Connect’s colocation facility?

We have had presence at 1025 for a couple of years as a pass-through location on our backhaul towards New York.  As major users start to move away from Manhattan as a service location, we have augmented and substantiated our presence there, given its proximity to multiple cable landings, no MRC cross-connect model and carrier-neutral status. 

What are the implications of installing SMART cables? Do you think they are the future?

The SMART cable initiative is intended to gather some basic situational data from telecommunciations cable systems (temp and pressure at amplifier housings), along with derived information (vibrational analysis due to subsea earthquakes/sea level changes) inherent in the optical signals and structure of the cable to provide long-term measurement of such items for the scientific and governmental institutes. This enables one to better understand ocean parameters, enabling better prediction and notification of major events (tsunami/earthquakes) and better modelling of our changing climate and oceanic activity.  As with any new technology in submarine, this will require demonstrator projects (some of which have started), development and standardization of new sensors and adoption of the requirement by the operator and developer community.

Many predict that the future of Subsea cable deployment will be taken over by tech giants such as Facebook and Google. What are your thoughts on this projection? And what would that mean for Aqua Comms?

Throughout my career it has been apparent that the people who need submarine cables most are the people who then get together to develop and build them. It was voice cables in the 80-90’s, so the PTTs were the dominant force in building. Later in the 90’s, it was for data and internet, and private companies consolidated and aggregated demand to build systems.  Then, larger ISPs (L3, GX, etc.) also built their own private cables whilst the PTT/Carrier consortia lessened. The 2010-20’s sees large private companies building for their own needs (same as during the 2000’s) but alongside some private developers (like ourselves) who aggregate smaller demands together with those carriers with large infrastructures.  So my answer would be that those with the biggest need for capacity will always look to build at an infrastructure level for best cost, and there will always be space for those, like Aqua Comms, who choose to FOCUS on serving the needs of the rest of the market.

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Roya Ghafele, Executive Director of Oxfirst

Inside Telecom Staff

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Roya Ghafele, Executive Director of Oxfirst

The Supreme Court has held that the English courts do have jurisdiction to determine the FRAND terms of a global license to standard essential patents (SEPs).

Tell us more about Standard Essential Patents. What does this ruling mean for SEP holders?

The Supreme Court of England and Wales and lower Courts before, have done their best to issue a multifaceted and rich judgment. But there may be a couple of issues with this judgment. For me, this judgment once more emphasizes the need to come to grips with the novel market dynamics presented by international economic integration. The borderless world is a business reality, but the law has yet to catch up with it.

The standards, which this ruling addresses, are core to the telecom industry. 3G, 4G/LTE but also WiFi (which this judgment does not address) have paved the way for real time interaction across the globe. Where the further evolution of such standards will take us, remains yet to be seen. For sure, 5G will be instrumental for next generation technologies such as the Internet of Things.

Patents that read on standards, also called standard essential patents, are subject to the FRAND commitment. This is because they can be prone to anticompetitive behavior. FRAND stands for ‘fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory.’ In the case at hand, the IPR policy of ETSI, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute played an important role. This policy seeks to set out how patents that read on ETSI standards are to be treated.

In this case, the Court adequately recognized the commercial tensions that prevail in this sector. As such, the Court argued that FRAND is a balancing mechanism. On the one hand side adequate access to standards need to be assured, on the other hand side patented inventions should also be incentivized. Royalty stacking was also recognized as a key aspect of FRAND. Royalty stacking can be described as the risk of a cumulative royalty payment a downstream innovator may be faced with. This is explained by the fact that there are many different patent owners who claim their stake on a standard.

I tend to think that the ruling will attract litigation into the U.K. This will be good news for the local litigation industry, but may have adverse effects on the larger economy. In the difficult times we currently face, the UK needs to assure it does its best for its consumers, its start-ups and scale ups, SMEs and local industry. The UK also cannot neglect its international trade position.

What are the repercussions for the licensing of intellectual property in the telecoms sector?

This sector has experienced a lot of litigation over standard essential patents. The press has labelled these disputes as ‘patent wars.’ For both the licensor and the licensee, the commercial stakes are significant. After all, these standards formed the baseline of a novel way of doing business around the world. It comes hence as no surprise that Court awarded damages have been significant.

How will this jurisdiction affect consumers?

Consumers in the UK may be faced with less choice. This is because technology companies may be carefully considering whether to expose their global licensing requirements to the scrutiny of the UK. 

What would have been the implications if the decision went the other way?

The decision rightly points to a host of unresolved issues. It points out how highly complex today’s international business relations are. Had the British Courts decided that they can only issue a national licensing rate, existing market practice of pursuing legal disputes in a couple of key jurisdictions would have continued.

How will the decision impact implementors?

Downstream innovators need to be able to adequately access standards. Patents should not be an obstacle. The decision shifts the burden of proof and this is very expensive. Also, the decision sanctions a global FRAND licensing rate with an injunction in the U.K. Downstream innovators may carefully weigh risks and benefits against each other.

How will the ruling help turn the UK into a global hub for patent litigation?

That the UK is in a position to issue global FRAND rates, is an important value proposition for a patentee. It appears that this will now not be necessary as the UK is in a position to issue global FRAND rates. If and to what extent other countries will accept this remains to be seen.

Do you think technology companies will be prompted to reconsider their market position in the U.K?

This may be a possibility.  In TQ Delta vs Zyxel, the defendant declared it would rather accept an injunction and exit the UK market than accept a global FRAND rate set by the English Court. (See: TQ Delta vs Zyxel. Case No: HP-2017-000045. http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2019/562.html, Skeleton Argument on behalf of Zyxel. Claim Numbers: HP-2017-000045 and HP-2019-000009, p. 11 as well as hearing on April 17 2019, p. 97-99 and hearing on March 18, p. 51- 52)

How will this affect negotiations over Brexit?

There are 25 European countries that are trying to set up a Common Court for cross border patent enforcement, called the UPC (Unified Patent Court). The UK left UPC in July 2020. If and to what extent the UK will need to find its own governance structures once it has rejected the acquis communautaire remains to be seen.  I foresee here a potential for conflict. I await with interest the further evolution on this topic.

Do you see more FRAND litigation on the horizon? 

I do not expect this sector to come to peace any time soon. The commercial stakes are important and the sector is traditionally very litigious. Unless the underlying business SEPs protect diminishes significantly, I see no end in sight to the disputes over standard essential patents.

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Ahmed Bader, Insyab Co-Founder and Managing Director

Karim Hussami

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Ahmed Bader, Insyab Co-Founder and Managing Director

Insyab was launched in Dubai, UAE in 2016 and is currently operating out of the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) Research Park, KSA with a presence in Houston, Texas, USA.
The company’s mission is to offer connectivity and mobility management solutions to unleash the power of collaboration in robotic systems. The company places strong emphasis on continued Research & Development and customer satisfaction.

Tell us about the journey of your company, from its inception to the present day?

It started as a casual conversation back in early 2013. I was telling my friend and PhD co-supervisor, Prof. Slim Alouini of an idea that I had. There was a spark, and we saw an opportunity ahead. The technology was not ripe enough though. So we spent the next 2-3 years working on maturing the technology and experimenting with it using some initial funding we received from KAUST, the university which embraced our vision. It was not until late 2015 when we had something to showcase to a potential customer who happened to fly all the way from Houston, Texas to attend a field demo. Soon after, we incorporated the company which we named “Insyab” and had our first paying customer in early 2016.
This first customer happened to hail from the oil & gas upstream industry. So naturally, we spent the years to follow deepening our knowledge and widening our know-how in this domain.
Today, we offer a range of connectivity, mobility management, and analytics solutions to the O&G industry. We have also worked hard over the past 18 months to diversify into other verticals especially given the repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis. Capitalizing on many of the tools we used for O&G, we are now venturing into the precision agriculture and last-mile transportation domains.

Why is automation such an important tool across industries?

Automation is seen as a tool to enhance efficiency and productivity across various industries. Repetitive low-skilled tasks are better off and safer to be done by robotic agents. This is particularly true when automating field operations.
For example, in a typical geo-exploration operation, tens of thousands of sensors are deployed in what are often considered to be harsh environments (e.g. arid deserts, frozen snowy terrains, or foothills). In fact, these sensors need to be repeatedly picked up and laid down somewhere else over the span of months or even years. Indeed, unmanned aerial/ground vehicles, i.e. drones, are well-positioned to handle such tasks. In other words, drones are used to automate the sensor deployment and retrieval operation.
Another good example of automation and an early adopter of robotics is the logistics industry. I remember back in 2012, it was just thrilling to see Amazon acquiring Kiva Systems for nearly USD 800M. Kiva was among the first companies to develop a warehouse servicing robotics solution.

How can multiple agents (e.g. drones, crawlers, or rovers) cooperate and get the job done faster?

That is a very good question. Obviously, having multiple robotic agents taking a stab at a certain job will slash the time needed to finish it, right? In fact, the message we often preach here is that 1+1=3! It can be demonstrated that when robots work in collaboration, they’re often able to do better. For instance, going back to the geo-exploration example, we’ve shown that 4 drones can deploy sensors in substantially less than a quarter of the time taken by a single drone. This can be done by virtue of load balancing and adaptive mission control in the face of unpredictable events in the field.

Do wireless solutions facilitate automation?

If we want to have drones and robots collaborate we need to allow them to talk to each other, right? So wireless communications kicks in as a valuable enabling tool. It may even be the case sometimes that over-the-counter wireless technology is not very well suited. Using the example of geo-exploration again, cellular services are not ubiquitously available in areas where systems are to be deployed. Furthermore, the amount of bandwidth and the ultra-low level latency sought after in these applications make it appealing to develop a proprietary solution. This is what we have exactly done for this market.
In fact, we have come across another good example where the development of custom-made wireless technology was needed. One of the biggest online retailers in the UK, Ocado, wanted to build a fully automated warehouse fulfillment center. This involved the use of automated conveyor belts and robotic agents. They quickly realized the need for highly robust high-bandwidth, low-latency wireless connectivity, and ended up co-developing a customized  solution. 

How has automation helped in context to the current pandemic?

While it is still early to offer a quantified response to that, it is pretty obvious how fast factories and warehouses and even farmlands are ramping up the use of robotics and automations in their operations. This is seen as a tool to minimize the impact of disruptions caused by lock-downs or mobility restrictions.
Automation is therefore on a fast-track trajectory to be more deeply embraced and this is clearly fueled by COVID-related concerns. Most importantly, the increased use of robotics and automation on the factory or warehouse floor reduces the likelihood of workers coming into close proximity to each other and hence minimizes hopefully the chances of contagion.

Is Insyab’s solution of real-time wireless connectivity between all components of multi-agent systems more efficient than using cellular infrastructure?

Well, it always depends on the use case. For many industrial automation applications, the cellular infrastructure can take care of the need. However, as mentioned earlier, there are specific use cases in the security, public safety, and energy sectors where the cellular service is not up to speed. This is less likely to be the case as 5G cellular services start to be rolled out. We’re actually quite excited at the prospects of 5G. The recently ratified 3GPP Release 16 and the prospective Release 17 incorporate provisions for robotization and automation. Some of the technology we’ve developed at Insyab looks quite relevant there, and we trust that we’ll start to have some traction with 5G technology developers.

Other than Insyab’s AirFabric™ wireless solution, what other products and solutions have Insyab developed?

Yes indeed, AirFabric™ is the core wireless connectivity solution that enables robotic agents to communicate with each other seamlessly. But wireless in itself is just an enabler. The key is to plan the collective motion paths of robots such that the underlying mission is executed as efficiently and as timely as possible. So last year, we released an early version of a path planning software module. Given our successful track record in the geo-exploration market, the first trial is expected to take place 4Q2020.
At a different end of the spectrum, and in effort to step up the value proposition, we also started complementing our offering with data analytics and computer vision components. This is primarily provisioned through partnerships with other startups that we work closely with.

How has the current pandemic affected your business? Have these challenges inspired new ideas to cope with the changes?

As you may expect, it had some painful effects on the flow of the business. That was especially true given the meltdown in the oil market back in April 2020. We immediately started to see budget cuts and PO cancellations. Anyway, I think we’ve been able to weather the storm but unfortunately at the expense of reducing our investment in R&D for the time being. We’re also virtualizing our workspace and business routines as much as possible with the hope of picking up pace again when the dust settles.

What has been your most successful mission supported by AirFabric™?

Indeed, the area where we had greatest success is the O&G upstream sector. We’ve also had some good interactions within the security market, where the requirement entailed offering wide-area 24/7 surveillance of strategic infrastructure such as pipelines and critical industrial facilities.

Talk us through the teams’ developmental process when creating these solutions?

Our team members are undoubtedly our best assets. My personal philosophy is to strive to make our team players feel that they actually “own” the project. We’re a small team, so we still enjoy the privilege of discussing our projects collectively and in-depth. When people feel empowered they automatically develop a sense of ownership. You don’t have to worry then about tasks being completed on time and with quality.

We know that many countries ban drones or other forms of aircraft. Do you have any legal licenses in place for this process of development?

It is not us, but rather our customers who would be managing the unmanned assets. So we don’t really fly or steer unmanned vehicles ourselves. Nonetheless, the regulatory framework does have an effect on the overall business potential.
Nonetheless, if you’re asking about the testing we do before shipping a product, then I must say that we’ve been fortunate enough to have an office at the KAUST Research Park, where flying drones for research and development purposes is rather a convenient task.

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