Wireless: A Field Guide to Industrial Wireless

No Other Technology Has Been Written About, Trumpeted by Vendors and Snipped by Critics Like the Use of Wireless Communications in the Process Industry

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Cisco and Rockwell have partnered around Cisco’s own brand new industrial wireless networking offering called “First Mile Wireless.” In its press release, Cisco claims, “The standard Cisco First Mile Wireless solution is architected and comprised of Cisco 1500 Series wireless mesh access points with specialized blast-proof, hardened cases, Cisco WCS for wireless network management, supported by Cisco Secure Services for network security. A combination of pretested and validated backhaul technologies, including Wi-Fi bridging, WiMax and satellite connectivity, and operation technologies and applications complete the transformation of the oilfield from an isolated, hard-to-reach location, to an oasis of information fully connected to remote expertise and analysis.”

The Future of Proprietary Networks

The question that must be asked is, “What about SP100 and these proprietary networks?” Sensicast’s Ambrosino is very clear. “Sensicast is actively involved in the ISA Wireless Systems for Automation standards committee (ISA-SP100). Our participation is motivated by our belief that the specification will work its way into a variety of standards and markets that will drive up both the quality and quantity of SP-100 platform solutions.”

Honeywell’s Chen and Kaufman are also very clear. “OneWireless is not a draft standard version of ISA100.11a,” Kaufman says, “but it does use technologies and configurations likely to be part of the final ISA100 standard.”

Chen concurred, “We intend to migrate OneWireless to the ISA100 standard as soon as it is adopted,” he said at HUG in June.
Invensys’ Kagan and Apprion’s Fuhr, both deeply involved in SP100, have said similar things.
It is likely that Cisco will co-operate with SP100 as well.

Yet, what about Ambrosino’s comment about proprietary networks? Much can happen between now and October 2007, when the draft ISA100.11a is supposed to be finalized, and sent out for comment. And even more can happen between then and the time in 2008 when the first ISA100 standard is set to be adopted. If ISA100 is derailed, anything can happen, and most likely will.

The Early Adopters

Since there are no actual users yet of either WirelessHART or ISA100, we have to look at the end users who have been beta-testing these devices.

At the 2006 Emerson Exchange, BP Cherry Point Refinery’s Marty Gering described prototyping Emerson’s SmartWireless system at the refinery. Gering, wireless data collection coordinator and wireless worker adminstrator for the refinery, noted that there are many locations in the refinery where large bodies of uncaptured data exist. “This data is valuable,” Gering said, “but we can’t touch it because of the expense of wiring and running conduit.”

Emerson’s SmartWireless is specifically intended to be a draft-WirelessHART network, and is guaranteed upgradeable to WirelessHART whenever the customer wants to do it.

Gering said, “We’re sticking to monitoring and alerting only, but we’re designing the systems so that if we choose to move to control in the future, we can.”

The next project for Cherry Point is the tank farm. “We’re beginning a new project to wirelessly connect those tanks with backup level,” said Gering last October. “We have hundreds of valves that we’d like to have positioner information on, as well as other pressures and temperatures. We have mixers with motors we’d like to monitor current on, and lots of other things. We’re looking at 300 points.” Gering hopes to have the project implemented by the end of 2007.

Honeywell’s OneWireless has its beta tester, too. Byron Lewis, process control specialist at Alon USA’s Big Spring Refinery, in Big Spring, Tex., talked with Control at this year’s HUG. “We’ve had 100% uptime,” Lewis said. “We installed the gateway, and then I took a sensor and walked around every one of the proposed installation sites, and we saw if the gateway was receiving or not. It was that easy.”

Lewis also reports on his activities in this Honeywell-produced advertorial video, also shown at HUG. (www.controlglobal.com/articles/2007/162.html.)  “We deployed this system at an approximate delta of $10,000 over wired transmitters,” says Lewis in the video, “and we were therefore able to purchase additional transmitters.”

When asked if he would be willing to use the Honeywell transmitters for control, he seemed startled. “I hadn’t thought of doing that until just now,” he said. “But you know, with the reliability that we’ve seen, I think I would. They’re as reliable as wired transmitters, as far as we’ve seen.”

David Runkle, production manager at the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Lost Pines Power Park says, “Invensys’ comprehensive managed approach to the new wireless technology has enabled us to unify both plants in the Lost Pines Power Park under a common communications system. They did this at a fraction of the cost of a wired solution, while providing an extremely flexible platform for future wireless-enabled applications, including remote equipment condition monitoring and tank farm level monitoring.”

The Lower Colorado River Authority is one of the largest power generation utilities in Texas, and has been assisting Invensys and Apprion to prototype the ION system, which Invensys and Apprion intend to migrate to S100 eventually. “There’s certainly a lot of hype in the marketplace about wireless technology being the next game-changer in automation,” Runkle said. “And while this might indeed be true, it also means that the technology is still relatively unproven in many of the types of industrial wireless applications that we are considering.”

The Nay-Sayers

Runkle is not wrong about the unproven nature of industrial wireless in process applications. Neither is Herman Storey, senior automation consultant for Shell Global Solutions, and co-chair of ISA’s SP100.11 committee. He told this writer last year, “Frankly, I don’t think there are as many wireless applications as some vendors believe. Those applications that can be done with wires will be done with wires.”

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