GUEST POST: Trends in the wireless automation market – Part 2

This audio was created using Microsoft Azure Speech Services

In this post we pick up with Stephen Goodman, and hear more about proprietary solutions and the place of wi-fi in the industrial automation market.

While the in-plant automation world was busy developing standards for the emerging WSN market, telemetry groups were developing solutions based on in-house technologies that would address the very specific needs of telemetry-based wireless sensor networks. The focus was not on mitigating congestion or ensuring compatibility with field-bus protocols, it was on ultra-efficient designs that would ensure data integrity in the most challenging of environments.

Through our efforts and others the result was an emergence of proprietary over-the-air protocols that took advantage of robust technologies such as Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) radios.  Honed and ready for market by the mid-2000s these products established early roots supporting outside-the-fence applications such as those found in upstream oil and gas, mining, and any others where stranded process points exist.

Today these solutions dominate the WSN telemetry markets as all the standards work has focused on the in-plant world alone.  Most of these purpose built solutions serve up data through Modbus so interoperability with SCADA networks is in affect addressed through networking standards.  The proprietary nature of the offers remains the secret sauce in the over-the-air protocol.

Dirty word or not, over the past seven years proprietary solutions have captured a major portion of the WSN telemetry market and we believe the trend will continue for years to come.


Regardless of approach, WSNs are all going in the same direction … up!

OK, so the telemetry market has proven itself with purpose-built solutions and year over year growth that can rival any automation product, and the in-plant markets are now adopting the 802.15.4 standards at equally impressive rates.  Basically what we are seeing now is the end of the industrial wireless taboo, and true to form it is decades after wireless was adopted as a natural extension of ourselves in the consumer products world.

But what does it all mean, can we anticipate what the future will hold?  Is it OK if I say that wireless will continue to permeate all facets of automation until there will be no more wires, or is that just a (data) pipe dream?  Call me back in 30 years.  Either way, for now we have two markets that have different needs and different technologies, each experiencing growth, each requiring innovation.

What about WiFi?

Before putting a period at the end of this blog, I thought a short segway on the most prolific wireless technology of all would be worthwhile. Everyone knows WiFi, it’s in the home, office, and the local Starbucks for free. It is also well entrenched in plant data networks, and if not, certainly the offices nearby; what could possibly be more ubiquitous?  Does WiFi have a place in the wireless sensor network world?

While 802.15.4 gets all the attention for in-plant wireless process monitoring and the proprietary solutions take the stage in telemetry applications, there are plenty of reasons to consider WiFi as a contender for the wireless process automation future.  For one thing there is no technology that can offer better network interoperability, and while the 802.15.4 products have their roots based on low-cost chipsets, WiFi has more R&D dollars and much higher volumes than 802.15.4 will ever have. This is resulting in Moore’s Law-type reductions in both the power requirements and cost of WiFi equipment.  It may not be tailored for WSN products today but I say, don’t count it out.

Tackling the ultimate taboo…

It’s not only about monitoring anymore!  Accutech and others are now starting to offer control capabilities in WSN products for use in applications where stranded control elements need to be acted upon and wireless is the only way to accommodate without breaking the bank. This means WSN products are not only monitoring and reporting, they are also used to affect and decide, albeit for non-critical process elements, for now.  It took a long time for wireless monitoring to lose its taboo, is this the beginning of the same for control?

Author’s Biography

With twenty five years of management experience in technology, Stephen has been at the forefront of many transformational product offers including Schneider Electric’s wireless instrumentation offer, Accutech. With a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, a Masters in Metallurgy, and PhD in Materials Science, Goodman’s prior experience includes business development and strategic marketing roles in the semiconductor and aerospace industries.

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  • Just to be clear, a WSN and a SCADA-type telemetry backhaul network are not the same. A SCADA-type long-haul telemetry backhaul network connects remote RTUs to a centre of operations. The RTU is traditionally connected to several sensors using wired 4-20 mA. A WSN means sensors which are truly wireless; the wireless transmitter has built radio, antenna, and battery – there are no wires.

    Wi-Fi is a good option for networking RTUs to a centre of operations

    The main reason for IEEE 802.15.4 in WSN is not low-cost chipsets but EXTREMELY low power. A wireless transmitter in a WSN runs 10 years on a single D-cell-size battery. This is not possible with Wi-Fi. A long battery life is critical at a site with hundreds of wireless sensors. Therefore Wi-Fi and IEEE 802.15.4 will coexist and complement each other in plants and unmanned sites just like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth complement each other in a laptop.

    For instance, an RTU on an unmanned platform collects data from multiple wireless sensors in the platform using a standard network protocol over IEEE 802.15.4 radio and then relays that data back to the centre of operations using a standard protocol over Wi-Fi radio.

    I totally agree that standards-based protocols are required for WSN. This ensures a single wireless network can accommodate a mix of wireless sensors from different vendors. IEC 62591 (WirelessHART) is the most common WSN in the process industries

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