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Wireless Networks for the Digital Flow Meter, Part 1


Sep 06, 2011

Last time I wrote about unified communications, which is the ability to use discrete communications protocols within a protocol network. This time I want to expand on the physical aspects of the network as it relates to flowmeters, including mass air, oxygen, pipe, water and other types.

Let’s assume you’ve just purchased another five flow meters and go about “wiring” them into your infrastructure. You’ve enhanced your meters by utilizing a communications protocol for remote observation and control. You’ve hired a technician to install the meters within a pipe, located a source to power the meters and finally ran cable for the communication support. The communications line ends at your Remote Console that interacts with the meters.

So, in simple terms, your communications network looks like this:

You go to your Remote Console and examine and interact with a flow meter.  Now, what happens if you’re on the factory floor and need to examine data from your a flowmeter? The problem is that you’re not near your Remote Console.  Well, this problem has many names but is best known as the “last mile” problem. Simply put, in sending “data” (which can mean any type of data – TV/cable, voice, DSL, communications protocols, etc.) from the source to the destination, there are issues within the “last mile” or last part of deployment.

Case in point, when we moved into our house many years back, I decided to upgrade our DSL to the fastest that our area provided. After speaking with the sales person, they told me they had a complete fiber backbone that would provide the fastest fastest speed.  Excited, I decided to go for it and placed an order. The technician arrived, did the installation and informed me that I could not get the promised speed as the infrastructure in our neighborhood was not wired with fiber but standard copper. So, the phone company could get the fastest signal to our junction box in the neighborhood, but for the “last mile,” they were limited to whatever was historically there. It was just not cost effective to install new fiber to the whole neighborhood. Long story short, I could not get the fastest speed. I can only surmise that it was not cost effective for them to install new lines for a limited customer base (i.e., the neighborhood).

So, what do we do regarding your need for a Mobile Remote Console for your flow meter set-up? How do we create a communications “pipe” that does not require costly installation and maintenance? In one word: wireless. Let’s adjust your network layout to support wireless. In simple terms, it looks like this:

We insert a wireless device that will “pass” data from the communications pipe the flow meters are using to the laptop/console. Now, based on the range of the wireless signal, the user can walk around the factory floor with a Remote Console without any additional costs in infrastructure (i.e., no physical wire was installed) other than the wireless hardware. In our example, we avoided the “last mile” issue by using a wireless approach instead of installing wires for communications. What would happen if we changed the communications protocols in the future using wire? We may have to pull all the wire and install new wire. With the wireless solution, we may need to upgrade the wireless access points, but that’s it – no physical wires.

When you’re thinking about a wireless solution for flow meters, there are some factors to consider:

Security

How do you limit who can interact with the network?

Is the data encrypted?

What is the range and how far can the network reach from a single network router?

Can multiple routers be “daisy-chained” to extend the signal reach?

Interoperability

Does the router “play well” with other routers?

Does the router support standards-based protocols?

Up until now, I have talked about the Remote Console being wireless and the digital flow meters being wired.  In my next post, I want to further expand this discussion and talk about making meters wireless and what that means in the larger scheme of self-healing networks, mesh networking, remote observation and interaction.

Kam Bansal, Dir. of Engineering
Written By:
Kam Bansal, Dir. of Engineering
Sierra Instruments

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