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Future-proofed telemetry set to soar?

23 May 2018

Rory Dear looks at the industrial telemetry journey so far and he has high hopes for its future.

At its beginning, industrial telemetry invariably involved one or more primitive sensors connected to a data gatherer, connected to a dial-up modem – all hard-wired and all mains powered. The data itself was basic, recording a temperature or conveying ‘is there a leak?’ The hardware required to obtain even this most rudimentary data set was expensive. The communications infrastructure strived to transport data cost-effectively and reliably, yet often achieved neither.

In the following years we saw the ‘cloud deployment’ methodology move from dial-up to broadband for local monitoring and GSM/GPRS truly released sensors allowing them to be placed in remote applications where, as battery technology improved, the need for hard-wired power and communications diminished. However, the cost of the hardware, early cellular data connectivity and batteries still made this solution unviable for many applications.

In the last decade embedded computing technology driving industrial telemetry has evolved rapidly, driving down hardware costs. Many today like to talk about the ‘revolution of IoT’, particularly those once outside of the industry who through wanting to cloud connect their devices, are now a new part of it. For me IoT, and it’s specifically industrial subset IIoT, are merely evolutions and rebranding of existing technologies that us diehard embedded folks have been knee-deep in since the turn of the century.

The major change I have seen with the ‘IoT revolution’ is that industry – traditionally and purposefully a few years behind mainstream computing – is now transforming and is breaking new technology barriers – but at a cost. What once was the low-risk deployment of mature, mainstream proven technology now sees us as the beta testers and for industrial telemetry.

Those at the front end of deploying industrial telemetry systems are dazzled by the promise of narrowband cellular technologies, particularly in Europe with NB-IoT. The promise is near 100% coverage (above, on or underground) with near zero transmission cost and power consumption. The power (high on performance functionality, ultra-low on operating consumption) of today’s core processors finally brings the cost of ownership down to levels accessible by almost anyone.

Not yet useable
But, the issue with NB-IoT is that while the industry is falling over itself about its promise, it isn’t actually useable, yet. NB-IoT modules such as u-blox’s SARA-N2 do exist, but the infrastructure – not so much. This is resulting in a stop/start path to fulfilling promises, with the same infrastructure delays experienced by frustrated early cellular data users when 3G first became available.

No one wants to fund designing the new Betamax – releasing a 2G/3G based IIoT telemetry system only for NB-IoT to quickly render it all but technologically obsolete. Such a solution would also permanently suffer the relatively high power consumption restraints that remain an obstacle for existing cellular technology deployments, dictating regular battery swaps or batteries so large as to be unviable. Thankfully there is a solution.

Forward thinking cellular modem vendors like u-blox, combined with IIoT designers like Datasound Laboratories enable IIoT telemetry developers to immediately employ existing 2G/3G infrastructure, and immediate migration to NB-IoT the second the infrastructure is available. This avoids costly re-design, re-prototyping and re-certification. This is all made possible by a combination of footprint compatible parts and clever design methodologies. It’s not as simple as designing with one and switching to another, but it is possible to design a scalable IIoT telemetry system that does support it.

From the NB-IoT infrastructure providers perspective, they face a chicken and egg situation – the costs of deploying the infrastructure are only recoverable if a lot of people use it, and quickly. They need assurances they’ll recover that cost as much as telemetry vendors need assurances the infrastructure will be there.

With the future-proofing ability of new IIoT telemetry designs now fully secured, hopefully the stuttering around IIoT telemetry deployments on both sides can now end.

Rory Dear is managing director at DSL.

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