Bluetooth – back to the future?

06 February 2017

Is the process industry ready for instrument adjustment and diagnosis with Smartphones or Tablets?

Wireless communication for industrial field transmitters has been a popular topic in recent years. But what about the possibility of an accessible and simple means of instrument set up and operation using a smartphone or tablet? 

Bluetooth has been a familiar feature in our everyday lives for many years. All modern cars, for example, now have a hands-free phone. Music, keyboards and mice, remote controls, televisions and portable speaker systems in our homes are all using this communication protocol to increase safety and provide convenience. It’s secure too, every day, in shops and restaurants, we put debit and credit cards into wireless payment terminals that use Bluetooth communication to securely transmit sensitive financial information. 

The technology is also beginning to find its way into the process industry. It has the potential to configure, adjust, analyse and retrieve data in sensors from a safe distance using every day devices, whether they are supplied by the company or are the users ‘own’. ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) is becoming a more familiar term in our language, not just at the ‘hi-tech’ companies. 

In industry Bluetooth is also starting to emerge and is now available on products like data loggers, controllers, analytical systems and valve positioners. It is already now also being introduced to field transmitters for set up, monitoring and asset management. This is facilitated by the development and implementation of Bluetooth 4.0, which is now low power enough to be used on ‘loop powered’ field based sensors.

This is probably the first and foremost question. Bluetooth communications are founded on three procedures: 

Authentication & authorisation: This is the process of determining who is at the other end of a Bluetooth link and if their device should have access to yours. 

Encryption & data protection: Bluetooth encrypts your data (128 bit) and only allows approved devices to decrypt it, making it much more difficult to for unauthorised users to capture and decipher your information. 

Privacy & confidentiality: In addition to encrypting the data being transmitted, the latest Bluetooth 4.0 also makes it possible to encrypt the address of the Bluetooth device itself. 

An additional layer of security is provided by the App or software that is required to carry out the communication on. Often, only that specific App will identify the device, how and with what it operates. Finally, if the user desires, the ultimate security should be also in enabling the Bluetooth to be physically switched off or removed. So, for example, in the process industry it may be used for convenience and safety during commissioning, calibration checks or testing, but it could then be disabled or removed during normal operation, if preferred.

What can be seen and used? 
Due to the display quality and size of most smartphones and tablets, along with our familiarity with operating them, adjustment apps for process devices can offer excellent interface and visualisation capability for set up. This extends to sensor asset management and enabling performance analysis - like filters, echo curves, trends and diagnostic functions - to be easily visualised and evaluated. Bluetooth has the potential to offer simpler, faster adjustment and diagnosis, as well as better device management, safety and convenience for the user.

Heat, dirt, noise, dust or gases (or even just horrible weather!) are just some of the hazards that personnel can face in the process plant. Bluetooth 4.0 has a range typically around 25m, further, (50m+) in clear areas, enabling devices to be accessed and operated from a more secure, sheltered position. Another reason for utilising the technology could be the location or position of the device itself, helping to avoid prolonged awkward working positions, eliminating the need to climb ladders or work at heights. It could even help to reduce exposure risk to harsh/toxic chemicals. These are strong safety and productivity benefits for the user. 

Hazardous area use
Smart phones and tablets enclosed in hazardous area cases with the correct approvals are also becoming both more commonplace and affordable. Up until now, any sensor requiring set up in a hazardous area has required either key pads on, or adjacent to, the transmitter; specialist communicator devices; or the use of remote communication methods such as the HART protocol, typically typically a handheld terminal or PC connected on signal cables from a junction box/safe area some distance away. However, this is not always practical - it requires housings to opened, connection into terminals at junction boxes or cabinets (with associated time consuming ‘Hot work permits’), and the communication speeds can sometimes be slow. Because Bluetooth carries no energy in itself, as long as the communication devices at each end (e.g. sensor and smart phone) are appropriately protected and certified, there is no compromising of the hazardous area operating zone. Alternatively, with a 25m+ range, the Smartphone can also be used in a place of designated safety. 

Easier to read displays, intuitive screens with pertinent user information and faster connection, wireless Bluetooth communication has the potential to increase productivity during sensor set up, commissioning and maintenance phases. It is also well known that a better quality, intuitive device interface means less ‘adjustment returns’ and improved process control. Of course how often do instrument people hear “It just happened and you missed it”?  When something does need checking, the ability for faster connection and sensor diagnosis means for example, during a process upset, it could help to see and capture ‘that moment’, which in itself could save money and reduce environmental danger. 

Back to the future!
The VEGA PLICSCOM universal display and adjustment module now has optional Bluetooth 4.0/LE. This is secure and encrypted, on/off switchable communication for both Android/IOS smartphone/tablet set up and diagnosis. Amazingly, it is also fully backward compatible with all plics level and pressure transmitters manufactured since 2002. Because of the built in modularity of the system, it can be easily retrofitted without the need for any software update. A magnetic pen supplied with the unit offers the option to operate the PLICSCOM buttons through the glass viewing window, and an ATEX certified version is now available for some sensor variants with more to follow. There is also a Bluetooth USB dongle for PC connection via FDT/DTM / PACTware. This offers a great opportunity for tens of thousands of existing users and their already installed sensors to try it out the future today.
Download the VEGA Tools App at IOS or Android store or find out more at under ‘Wireless Adjustment’.

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