World without wires

Wireless technology has many applications, but its full impact has yet to be felt in the industrial arena.

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By  Administrator Published  August 1, 2007

Wireless technology can be seen in everyday use in personal communications, whether that's mobile phones or computer accessories. But industrial wireless applications, originally stemming from the need to have real-time control over a network system, are still developing.

Industries, especially process industries, have yet to take full advantage of wireless technology's ability to improve production and security, minimise costs and extend the lifetime of new and existing equipment.

"Wireless instrument technology - based on radio signal rather than hard wired communication - has aroused as much interest as it has scepticism," said Todor Todorov, Honeywell's marketing and business development leader, Field Instrumentation.

"Some question the reliability and security of wireless networks, while others recognise the reduced installation costs it represents and the improved cost effectiveness it brings. However, the principal requirement of industrial wireless technology is clear; it has to be robust, reliable, cost effective and totally secure."

Wireless is the best industrial innovation to have come along in the past 30 years.

There are different wireless systems, but one of the most common platforms is Fieldbus. This technology emerged in the 1970s as part of initial attempts to provide control functionality. With the introduction of a Distributed Control System (DCS), processing plants were able to distribute intelligent control throughout process facilities.

"Wireless is the next frontier to enabling total plant optimisation and safety," said Todorov.

"It's the greatest thing to come along in process automation ever since the launch of the microprocessor-based DCS in the 1970s. Wireless is the best industrial innovation to have come along in the past 30 years."


But despite such resounding endorsements of the technology and its potential applications, its use by the oil and gas sector has been limited offshore and at the wellhead.

As Leif Eriksen, director of energy and utilities industry solutions group at Symbol Technologies (now owned by Motorola) told a recent conference in Dubai: "Today, the penetration of wireless in the oil and gas industry worldwide is less than 10%, but is now attracting a tremendous amount of interest. Having wireless and having it widely-used are two different things.

"If somebody says they have wireless, they may have it in an office or a warehouse but not necessarily in every facility."

Eriksen noted that BP, which was one of the first energy majors to adopt wireless technology in its refineries and offshore rigs, currently has less than 20-25% deployment, meaning there is still a lot of potential for growth.

Now energy companies are waking up to the fact that wireless communication has the potential to increase production and help reduce costs.

"Aside from the obvious benefits of reduced cost for incremental measurements, there is the benefit of mobility and implement of applications that simply could not have been implemented with a wired structure," said Hesh Kagan, director, Technology Services, Applications, and Solutions for Invensys Process Systems.

"New maintenance, safety, security and asset tracking applications will add directly to improved plant performance."

Other examples can be found in offshore production, where the use of mobile video and new sensors reduces the need for personnel who can carry out their duties onshore, meaning less transport to and from the site reducing costs and risk. Also, enhanced monitoring systems mean problems can be identified and addressed more speedily.

Wireless applications

Hesh Kagan, director, Technology Services, Applications, and Solutions for Invensys Process Systems describes some of the most prominent applications for wireless technology.

Mobile Workforce - provides employees in the field with secure roaming access to real-time control systems, enterprise applications, documents, and other information via wireless hand-held devices and hardened Mil Spec and NEMA 4-rated tablet personal computers.

Field Data Logging - enables personnel to quickly and accurately upload device and equipment status and diagnostic data to maintenance systems from the field.

Condition Monitoring - wireless connection to remote sensors provides incremental measurements (tank levels, temperatures, pH, vibration, etc.) to provide a richer real-time database to support highly effective model-based predictive maintenance strategies.

Asset Tracking - uses RFID technology to provide accurate identification and location of fixed and rolling assets with optional visualisation on a hand-held device.

Physical Security - provides flexibility to implement any combination of mobile video, fixed surveillance cameras, intrusion detectors, and proximity sensors as required to cost-effectively extend the reach of physical security throughout a building, plant, or an entire complex.

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