Industrial wireless monitoring and sensing


Pervasive wireless network

Facility operators often face aging, legacy equipment that may be “un-instrumented,” and data acquisition on performance and maintenance may be natively impossible. Being able to retrofit ad hoc instrumentation and communicate to gather data and metrics can allow for better operational monitoring and maintenance planning and reduce downtime. One solution is to develop ad-hoc (off- the-shelf) modules for sensor types (humid, temperature, vibration, pressure) to allow rapid deployment of wireless-based sensors to gather relevant data. This allows ad-hoc, short-term, or emergency surveillance of problem devices. Plus, it allows a modular approach to wireless sensor measurement in an aging facility environment without large-scale digital equipment upgrades.

Beyond the delivery of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and mobile worker/data applications, the availability of a pervasive wireless network within the facility allows deployment of low-cost sensors and meters for tactical or short-term operational needs. A “bug-like” approach for the deployment of multi-sensor devices that is specific to the operation’s needs should be used.

For example, if a faulty motor or pump is suspected, a camera, vibration sensor, and hall-effect monitor can be attached to the housing. In today’s market, the sensor takes three minutes to assemble the modules in the “plant shop” and one minute to provision on the network.

Cohesive reference architecture

One of the best ways to avoid wireless technology obsolescence, ensure a long system lifecycle, and maximize system utility is to select and deploy wireless infrastructure in the context of a cohesive reference architecture. A reference architecture’s chief function is to provide a baseline roadmap related to interfaces and capabilities of related technology systems and business processes for legacy and planning perspectives. Investing the energy and effort in development of a well-thought-out reference architecture provides several key benefits. These include ensuring equipment compatibility, adherence to and compliance with evolving standards across the enterprise, realization of long-term return on investment goals, and optimal planning of capital expenditure spending.

In an industrial setting the major components comprising a reference architecture typically include field instrumentation, communications, storage/analytics, and presentation/visualization. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of field devices that can be connected using one or more wireless technologies. Capturing field devices in the reference architecture provides an easy method for managing the multiple interfaces that need to occur between field and communications devices. Similarly, management of the interfaces between communications networks to the analytics/storage and presentation/visualization layers is also important to capture in a reference architecture. This ensures that higher layer factors including communications protocols, application programming interfaces, interface libraries, and other critical communications functions are well understood and accounted for during the wireless technology selection process.

Embracing wireless

Although not without challenges, wireless solutions can act as a common enabling technology. They can:

  • Provide ubiquitous communications capabilities
  • Offer cross-operational value and utility
  • Deliver common IP access using standards with robust cyber security
  • Reduce lead time and costs associated with wired cabling. 

Doug Bowers, SAICOn many projects, doing nothing is not an option, so the wireless solution acts more as a risk management policy. Plus, a strong communications foundation can address many challenges facility operators face during process transformation.

- Douglas Bowers is a senior project manager at SAIC. He has more than 15 years of experience in system integration for communication and network systems, identifying requirements, writing specifications, design, testing, and delivery, including rapid prototyping and development of sensor systems for industrial environments. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering,


Bowers presented in a Control Engineering industrial wireless webcast. Learn more at links to related coverage.

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