Originally published in the Engineers Journal.
As interest in the Internet of Things (IoT) picks up speed, its applications within the realms of industry, business and agriculture have become a key part of how this technology could shape our future.
In an effort to help build that future in Ireland, VT Networks completed its rollout of a dedicated IoT network across the country in June 2016, and recently announced a strategic partnership with Powerpoint Engineering, which will bring IoT solutions to its customers.
IoT refers to objects that are connected to the internet. Increasingly, those ‘things’ are sensors and simple devices, which will likely make up the majority of the more than 20 billion items that are expected to be connected by 2020, as estimated by the technology research firm Gartner. It is this type of device that runs on VT’s network.
The network is powered by SIGFOX technology — a company based in France that began providing this type of low-power, wide-area connectivity in 2009, and currently maintains both the cloud and the core network. Through its local operators, SIGFOX now has networks in 23 countries, including Ireland, which work together to allow devices to roam freely between covered nations.
What makes this type of connectivity different is its low bandwidth, maxing out at 12 bytes per payload and 140 messages per day, with each transmission having a maximum 14dBm output power. Due to the -162dBm sensitivity, devices can connect to the network at very long range with capacity for millions of devices on the network.
While other options, like traditional cellular or satellite networks, can transfer large amounts of information, they also require a lot of power and can come with significant costs. VT’s network is optimised for devices that only need to send small amounts of data periodically, which means users are not paying for bandwidth they do not need.
In addition, because many of the devices wake up, send their small message then go back into a dormant state until triggered again, with no constant connection with the base station, their battery life can be up to 300 times longer than devices using other connectivity options.
Overcoming problems with energy and power requirements
“In the early days of IoT technology, there were a lot of good ideas that were eventually abandoned because there wasn’t a suitable network to connect those particular solutions,” said Patrick Robinson, VT’s director of business development.
“When you’re deploying a fleet of hundreds of sensors or GPS trackers, connectivity costs can quickly become prohibitive, and it limited a lot of the options. Higher power requirements also meant those devices had to be wired into the main electricity or charged practically every day.”
It was the simplicity, range and low power requirements of VT’s network that caught the interest of Powerpoint Engineering, a provider of electrical testing, metering and safety solutions. Coincidentally, Powerpoint Engineering had been working on a project with 2rn — the engineering branch of RTÉ that maintains broadcast base stations nationwide — when 2rn became VT’s infrastructure partner.
All the SIGFOX-enabled devices that connect to VT’s network in Ireland speak directly to base stations located on 2RN infrastructure on the unlicensed ISM radio band at frequencies of 868-869MHz.
“Because we did that project with RTÉ in the past, when RTÉ and 2rn became associated with the SIGFOX network they wanted to introduce us to VT and to the whole IoT concept of M2M communication,” said Garrett Kelly, senior project engineer with Powerpoint Engineering. “They thought we’d be an ideal partner in the substation and power energy sector.”
After hearing about the differences of this low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN), Kelly says the company was immediately interested and quickly thought of potential applications, particularly in one of their specialty areas — retrofitting energy metering and substation-monitoring solutions.
With the network covering 97% of Ireland and requiring very little power for devices to connect, it provided a solution for a range of stubborn problems Powerpoint Engineering’s clients had faced. Beyond that, Kelly said the company was attracted by the simplicity of the solution.
Simple solutions for Bord na Móna
Since each device communicates directly with a base station, there is no pairing process required. As soon as they are powered up, the devices are connected to the network. All the end-user has to do is start an account for their device so they can view the data it transmits to the cloud. Depending on the solution, this can be done through a web-base platform, app or both.
Most areas of Ireland are covered by three or more base stations. Devices send their messages in triplicate, each on a different frequency, to provide redundancy and combat interference. The ultra narrowband radio waves used to transmit the data packets also allow for good indoor and underground coverage.
Powerpoint Engineering knew there would be implications for the metering side of their business, but they also quickly thought of another application at Bord na Móna, which produces peat for energy use, among other business ventures.
Due to the nature of the business, some peat production areas are found in isolated areas where there is no electricity supply and little or no GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) communication, but Bord na Móna wanted to be able to receive a particular data set from their sites.
Peat production bogs face a rather unusual challenge — internal combustion of peat stockpiles. The peat is harvested and stored on the bog in stockpiles, which can be up to three metres high, two kilometres long and take two years to create. Once they are produced, biological processes can raise the internal temperature to the point that the peat begins to heat. The problem isn’t always visible from the outside and can cause significant loss of time and resources.
The manual temperature monitoring process currently employed by Bord na Móna is a time-consuming one, and Powerpoint Engineering immediately saw a way to improve it with VT’s SIGFOX network. They took an existing solution that runs on the network — a Connit Live Yellow temperature probe — and added a two-metre long, stainless steel probe. It needed to withstand temperatures ranging from -10 degrees to 100 degrees Celsius, as well as any possible weather conditions.
The resulting device is currently being tested by Bord na Móna with positive results, Kelly said. If all goes well, sensors could be placed every 150 metres along the two-kilometre piles. The site where the product is being tested has approximately 20 stockpiles, with additional sites across the country.
“I certainly see this particular project as being a good starter for us and for them,” Kelly said, adding that Powerpoint Engineering has other interested clients, who they will start to engage with once they’ve finished the testing phase at Bord na Móna. They also have plans to create a platform that can aggregate the data from SIGFOX-enabled devices created by different manufacturers, though Kelly believes that functionality is about six months away.
Focus on power energy and substation condition
Powerpoint Engineering works with ESB and other clients that are large power generators or consumers, and facility managers at large corporations where energy bills can run into the millions.
“When we’re dealing with these guys, power energy and their substation condition are the primary focus. But often times when we have the ear of these guys, they’ll ask us, ‘What else do you do?’” Kelly said. “A lot of of these companies have big building management systems, SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems, all sorts of automated monitoring and control systems. But sometimes they might have a water meter in a remote location that they cannot get cables out to or cannot get communication from, or there might be some alarm that needs monitoring.”
Many companies are also aiming to meet energy conservation standards, such as ISO 50001, but that requires active monitoring and acting on the results of that data.
“Companies themselves want to try and achieve this energy management standard, and in order to achieve it you must measure it and you must prove that you’re measuring. But if it’s going to be very, very expensive to start a measurement system, it might impede that,” Kelly said. “If it’s cost effective and it’s easy to use, easy to setup, then it helps fast track compliance.”
Powerpoint Engineering is continuing to explore new ways to utilise this transmission of small data packets over a low-power network, and Kelly said it was difficult to predict how it will ultimately impact the way Powerpoint Engineering’s clients do business. “It’s such a broad new concept. All I can think of when I try to explain it is, we’re hearing SIGFOX now. It’s like a few years back you heard of Bluetooth, you heard of WiFi, and people said it will never catch on,” he said.
With the network now covering 97 per cent of the country, VT Networks is focused on promoting the technology and forming partnerships that can bring to Ireland some of the existing solutions that are available in other countries. “We’re grateful to have partners like 2rn and Powerpoint Engineering, who bring decades of technical expertise to the table,” said VT’s Robinson.
Powerpoint Engineering is hosting the inaugural Substation Safety Conference & Expo, which will focus on legislation, best practice, operator safety and equipment safety, on 8 and 9 November at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin. This conference and expo will provide an ideal opportunity for engineers and professionals involved in the industry to gather together and share their experiences and knowledge. A LinkedIn Substation Safety User Group has also been set up, in conjunction with the Substation Safety Conference & Expo. Click here to join.
For more information:
Garrett Kelly, senior project engineer, Powerpoint Engineering Ltd
Phone: +353 (0)57 8662162
Mobile: +353 (0)87 2318202