ISA SP100 keeps on its wireless path

The committee plans to produce a standard by 2008 and currently appears to be on schedule. Although end-user demand for wireless is rapidly increasing, participation in the work of SP100 remains sparse.

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Using frequency or channel-hopping on top of the DSSS or OFDM protocols is the committee’s preferred method of avoiding interference from other radios such as Wi-Fi and ZigBee also operating in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz bands. Channel-hopping also helps to remove most of the adverse effects of multipath distortion often found in industrial locations. Not enough is known yet about practical use of impulse radio, but due to its very wide bandspread, it is also likely to be free of multipath distortion without the complexity of channel-hopping.

Use of these technologies for SP100 wireless field networks means that data transfer rates are expected to be low—on the order of 250 kbps over distances up to about 100 meters per radio hop. By using field-mounted access points (as in the WNSIA proposal) or mesh networks (as in the Collaborative Initiative proposal), much longer distances will be possible. The PHY-MAC (Physical Layer) Committee is now working on a compromise or union of the two proposals for the SP100 Physical Layer and MAC.
Upper Layers

At this point, very little work has been devoted to definition of the Data Link Layer (DLL) immediately above the MAC or any of the higher layers. Rather, considerable effort has been spent to study the plant environment into which SP100 networks must be integrated—a legacy environment. This information will be incorporated into a network and system architecture. Specifics of the SP100 architecture are not yet firm, but we have some data:

  • SP100 is NOT being defined to be wireless Foundation fieldbus or to compete directly with wireless HART.
  • It is likely that most of the defined IEC 61158 fieldbuses will need to be integrated with SP100. This may mean that fieldbus messages will need to be tunneled through an SP100 network, and that SP100 messages may need to be tunneled through any of the fieldbuses or routed to a fieldbus device.
  • The decision to support Internet Protocol (IP) has not yet been finalized, but it now appears that IP addressing and protocol will not be directly supported for either IPv4 or IPv6.
  • Work on the Application Layer (AL) has just begun. The committee has noted that the AL of Profibus and Foundation fieldbus are rarely, if ever, used because the DLL has been defined with sufficiently rich interfaces that the AL is not needed.
  • Security is probably the most sensitive issue, since wireless exposes the industrial network to external forces that have never before been a problem in wired industrial networks.
  • From the more than 40 use-case examples collected, it appears that applications will vary from simple data acquisition to some complex remote control.

Politics, Collaboration and Hidden Agendas
SP100 committee members are from many types of suppliers and a few end users. At present, it appears that no supplier is attempting to preempt committee work to foster their own agenda. The level of cooperation and collaboration is high. End-user members currently represent process manufacturing with little representation from discrete parts manufacturing. As a direct result, the current objectives of the main working group, SP100.11a is to define a wireless network architecture and protocol for typical continuous and batch process control applications. Each of the two groups has different and generally complementary technology to offer. The challenge will be to develop a single standard serving the end user with an inexpensive, highly reliable, secure, and easy-to-use wireless network.

Wireless HART is also progressing at a rapid pace with its own agenda to supplement the wired 4-20 ma HART specification with an appropriate wireless technology similar to that of SP100’s two groups. All groups use IEEE 802.15.4 radios in a similar way. No cooperation or interoperability discussions are currently under way or even planned between wireless HART and SP100. However, many of the same suppliers and committee experts are on both committees and offer some opportunity for cooperation.

Conclusions and Concerns
The SP100 committee plans to produce a standard by 2008 and currently appears to be on schedule. Some process control vendor products are already very close to the proposed physical layer, while others are not. However, all suppliers seem to be willing to modify current products to use whatever becomes the SP100 standard. Vendor infighting seems to not be impeding progress in the committee.
A major concern is that end users have not provided very much insight to the committee on potential use of wireless networks in their operations, beyond the obvious replacement of wires, once they become available at reasonable prices. Introduction of a disruptive technology, such as wireless, has changed every other industry when it has achieved a reasonable pricing level; e.g., home networks and telephony. SP100 should enable wireless applications for process automation well beyond simple data acquisition and control, not inhibit it.

Update on Recent SP100 Committee Decisions

THERE WILL be a “first release” of SP100.11a timed to be sooner, rather than complete. The architecture is supposed to be sufficient for a complete industrial automation network optimized for process control applications.

  • The radio to be used is the one specified for IEEE 802.15.4, sometimes called the ZigBee radio. It will be used differently than ZigBee by using channel-hopping to improve multipath effects and to coexist with other ISM radios in the 2.4 GHz band.
  • The first release will be suitable for 1-second process control loops, with a latency of 100 ms or more.

The next meeting will be in Phoenix, Feb. 12-15.

  About the Author

Dick Caro is principal of CMC Associates, is a recognized expert on fieldbus technology and a founding member and Chairman of the Fieldbus standards committees. You can reach him at


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