The Oldest Operating Device (Or Is It?)
I read a flurry of reports published this past May and June about Voyager 1's imminent departure from our solar system. Now, approximately 11 billion miles from Earth, Voyager 1's present position in space makes it the farthest man-made object from Earth.
The main point of the reports is Voyager 1 has been sending back unexpected data about the characteristics of the edge of the solar system. We are talking about theory-busting data, thoroughly disrupting the expectations of what the probe should find.
This is interesting, but I find the functional longevity of this connected device to be the compelling story. Yes, I consider Voyager 1 to be a nonconsumer connected device that meets most of the requirements of the definition published in Connected World magazine's 2011 report: "The Coming Age of M2M & Connected Devices."
Voyager 1 collects and organizes data from scientific sensors in realtime, then relays the data to mission control according to predefined communication protocols.
Considering the distance between Voyager 1 and Earth, latency is a significant factor. I have looked at the logs from NASA's earthtracking stations (accessible online at voyager.jpl.nasa.gov), which show minute-by-minute data. These tracking stations are widely dispersed around the planet, providing an effective daily monitoring window of about 12 hours to receive data.
Let's underscore the point: Voyager is a self-managing, 65,000-piece product continuously collecting and reliably communicating sensor data. It is a connected wireless device.
This is all the more stunning when we consider Voyager was built with early 1970's technology. Let's put this in context. Between, 1970 when planning for the Voyager missions got underway to the launch in 1977, the following products were invented and made available: floppy disk (1970); LCD, microprocessor, and videocassette (1971); Pong, the first video game (1972); the Ethernet local computer network (1973); post-it notes (1974); laser printer (1975); ink-jet printer (1976); and MRIs (1977). On the flipside, two devices not invented until after the Voyagers were launched: The cellphone and the Sony Walkman.
Why do the Voyager accomplishments matter? Our taxes paid for the Voyagers and for the thousands of people who have interacted with them during their 36-year functional lives. The data we have received has helped us redefine our understanding of the solar system and beyond. Data analysis is the typical objective of data collected from sensors. Space probes are no exception. Analytics can drive product improvement, afford process trend assessments, and in the case of Voyager, lead to a better understanding of planetary and solar science.
In terms of successful connected devices, the Voyager twins have shown a functional consistency based on robust, yet limited 1970's technology, which sets a very high standard of quality. The Voyager design team made use of the best technology at the time, including eight-track digital tape recorders for data backup and pretransmission storage, a highgain antenna, and exceptional programs designed to make Voyager a selfmanaging, highly autonomous product in a hostile environment. The designers knew road service along the way would not be an option.
As a participant in today's connected-device ecosystem, I do not encounter such longevity, let alone the desire to design it into devices. To be fair, the pace of technological change in the 1970s was slow by comparison with 2013. Device longevity is not optimal to the current business model, where rapid product evolution and deployment drives profitability.
Earlier I made the case for Voyager 1 being the farthest functioning connected device. I said it was the oldest one as well. But is it? Are there older connected devices still continuously functioning in some factory or industrial plant? What about other interesting parameters, such as the deepest one (is it in the ocean or in the Earth)? Which one is in the most hostile operating environment?
Please drop me a line about your candidates for oldest, deepest, and in the most hostile operating environment, and I'll feature them in my Connected World blog.
In case you were wondering, NASA expects the Voyagers to continue functioning until the power cell fuel runs out in 2025, or when they lose their navigational "lock" on our sun as they speed away from it. Assuming they function until 2025, they will probably set the record for a consistently functioning connected device at 48 years. That's impressive.
Tim is a technology sales and market development strategist, and regular columnist for Connected World magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org