Following on from my last post (Making sense of M2M & telemetry) I’ve been thinking about how sensors, electronics, communications and IT all combine to create the world of M2M, and how we M2M / telemetry professionals view the sector through our own unique pair of spectacles. Last week I was at a conference in Munich where the focus was telecontrol and the users were primarily involved with factory automation and water & waste water. In both the sectors the traditional way of gathering & monitoring data has been via SCADA systems and the solutions were very much focussed on how data would be interfaced to such SCADA systems.
This morning I received a news story about how Cloud Computing was being used in Portugal for water network monitoring, which is quite a different approach to that used on the Acquedotto Pugliese in Italy where a SCADA system sits at the centre of the solution. The Aquas de Cascais are the first Portugese water utility to adopt such a solution for leakage detection and it shows to me that whilst SCADA may suit some, cloud computing will suit others.
Just as experience and skill is needed to apply the rights sensor technology (see Making sense of M2M & telemetry) then experience and skill is need to select the right data collection platform. The winners in M2M are going to be companies that can encompass different technologies adopting a flexible approach to data collection, understanding the risks and legacy issues within their clients internal infrastructure.
Making sense of M2M and telemetry
I remember my accountant telling me once when doing some end of year accounts ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ and the saying came back into my head recently when someone was describing to me an experience they had had with remote monitoring (M2M, telemetry….. you choose the phrase that you think is best).
As the M2M sector gathers momentum we are hearing a lot of talk about chipsets and modules, sim cards and cloud computing but we need to remember my accountant – rubbish in, rubbish out…. A lot of M2M applications involve measurements being taken and transmitted – from water, gas and electricity metering to heart rate monitoring.
The range physical variables that are being measured would take me all day just to type out let alone work out the best way to perform the measurement and develop the technology, but to seems to be the last thing on people’s minds. Perhaps it should be the first..?
Tank Level Monitoring
The telemetry experience I mentioned above related to tank level monitoring and it was a case of misapplication. An absolute pressure transmitter had been used. Yes, pressure = density x gravity x height, so the pressure exerted on the sensor face does change as the height of liquid above it changes, but someone along the line had forgotten that above the tank there’s the atmosphere and the atmospheric pressure changes. You can use a pressure sensor in this application so long as you compensate for the atmospheric changes (usually with the right type of pressure sensor). What is the right technology for level measurement..? You have to consider the budget, the accuracy, the tank size, the product and the conditions. You could use an ultrasonic sensor, one that transmits an ultrasonic pulse and times how long it takes to bounce back from the liquids surface. Ultrasonic level sensors are great and have their place, but how well do they suit an application when they are only powered momentarily once a day..? Could condensation build up on the face of the sensor and effect the measurement..? If this happened would you know about it or would you get a rogue reading, think the tank was empty and send a tanker out to fill..?
Level Monitoring Sensors
Sensors need to be applied correctly or else we, as a sector, are in danger of having great communication solutions that are actually delivering rubbish data.
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M2M & Telemetry Momentum
There's no doubt about it, the world of M2M (or machine2machine or telemetry or remote monitoring or whatever you want to call it) is gathering momentum. We're seeing an increase in sales & enquiries of our M2M Telemetry products and it's clear from the buzz around the industry that there's growth in many different remote monitoring sectors.
The networks are becoming more aggressive in both their pricing and their marketing which is of helping fuel the growth, and the module manufacturers are doing their bit too, but what are the other factors..?
I see the M2M in two distinct parts - those that want to integrate modules and those that want a more complete solution. To integrate modules you need design development skills as well as time and money, and the networks & module manufacturers have given these kind of users a gentle nudge. Not every M2M application warrants this investment so what are the options for those that want a more "available" solution and how can we help them..?
The solution you need depends on your application but I think the Metron2 covers quite a few options, with an emphasis on ease of use, flexibility and affordability. It's a solution that can grow with your needs - start with simple texts to your mobile to gain some confidence, then use a hosted solution so you can pay a small monthly fee and view your data on the internet and then finally, when you are ready to take a jump off the high board, integrate your own software platform and interface to your business systems.
This kind of approach speeds up the integration time for M2M, it reduces the risk, lowers the costs and means that you can quickly measure the deliverables and see if the use of M2M fits in with your business.
Is this kind of approach right for you..? Let me know - I'd be interested to have your thoughts.
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Positive environmental impact using M2M & telemetry
I became a little bit concerned recently whilst reading about the fear some people have of M2M & Telemetry... that it would invade their privacy or perhaps lead to dangerous situations. The thought of your freezer automatically ordering food isn't appealling for me either but as an industry professional with over 20 years experience I don't see this as being a viable target market (see Future Shock: M2M Gaining Ground).
M2M & telemetry are most beneficial when the machine is 'remote' and it saves someone having to do something. There are practical reasons to automate tasks and M2M solutions do exactly that - I don't consider my fridge to be 'remote' and I don't consider my weekly food shop to be something that needs to be automated. For more information regarding our wireless M2M options then please contact us.
Where I am seeing telemetry be successful is when it saves someone having to drive somewhere to do something. This could be to take a meter reading; to fill a vending machine; to check if a pump or a machine have tripped; or to fill up a chemical or fuel storage tank.
One example I have been involved with has seen a 25% reduction in the distance travelled by large road tankers (click here for more info). The financial benefits are obvious and this helps the western world remain competiive. The environmental benefits are often forgotten.
Investing in M2M & telemetry is a very green thing to do - in some industries there's nothing I can think of that would be greener. Sending drivers on courses to help them drive more efficiently; investing in vehicles that emit less CO2; switching off the engine when parked up.... can you ever see these all adding up to save as much pollution as 25% fewer miles? And can any of these contribute to positively to the bottom line..?
Go Green, Go M2M.!!!
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Powering the M2M & telemetry revolution
Data from M2M and telemetry devices can be of great benefit to business and how we expect the sector to grow, but one question to be answered is how is it going to be powered..? For cars, vending machines and electricity meters this isn’t much of a concern, but there are a large number of applications, such as those in the water/waste water sector or for tank level monitoring in the fuel and chemical sectors, where there is no power or connecting to power is relatively costly.
In many cases telemetry and M2M devices need to operate maintenance free for years and years and this means a good reliable source of power is needed. It also means the technology in the device needs to be able to deliver enough power for the devices to communicate reliably. It is this kind of challenge that faces the hardware developers. Using batteries is one option, though the right chemistry must be chosen to give a low self discharge rate, and unfortunately the chemistry that has this feature suffers as it is generally limited in the maximum amount of power it can deliver and for how long. It is well understood that GPRS is attractively priced for M2M applications, but when communicating using GPRS over the GSM networks there are technical difficulties that must be overcome in order to maximise both signal strength and battery life. These difficulties are not insurmountable as proven with devices such as the Metron2 and the Metron ATEX, but it is most certainly a challenge.
There are applications that don’t suit batteries. Perhaps more power is needed, or a longer time between battery replacements is preferred, and this turns our attention to energy harvesting. A good example of how solar energy can be used is within the cryogenic gas field. Distribution of cryogas is very expensive and part load returns are very costly and potentially damaging to the plant into which they are being returned. Having a telemetry device that can be polled makes it easy for the planners to quickly see which nearby tanks would benefit most from a quick "top up."
This has led to Powelectrics developing a solar powered GPRS capable telemetry system that it always on and therefore pollable. In order to maximise battery life and solar charging potential, or to help recover a battery in poor condition then intelligent charging circuitry is required. As well as this it is important that the charge rate is adjusted according to the temperature of the battery.
But what’s next..? There will be applications where there is no sun because the devices are underground, or when a solar installation would be prone to vandalism. How the M2M and telemetry revolution will be powered presents some interesting questions as well as exciting opportunities to those that are able to harvest the technology.