Wireless Walkabout

Bringing the Virtual World into the Real World Can Be Challenging

By Ian Verhappen

Though there's been much discussion about how wireless will empower all of us in our personal and professional lives by providing information anywhere, anytime, there are few instances of it being used that way in the industrial setting. So let's look at how that is done and some of the challenges associated with bringing the virtual world into the real world.

The ability to provide a heads-up display (HUD) or view of the process conditions, so a roving operator can view procedures and complete check lists or reports while out in the plant, has been available for some time, with Honeywell offering a helmet-mounted unit called Golden Eye more than 10 years ago. Google glass is a big improvement that certainly raises expectations about what might be possible. However, the present version is not quite "industrial strength" (though it should work with safety glasses as a projection surface). This is certainly something to keep an eye on as a part of our potential future. With phased-in use of the technology, visiting engineers can cross-reference the as-built drawings against the equipment they're field-verifying, and then take a photo to overlay with the drawing. Or perhaps visitors on-site will use it as part of their safety equipment, so in the event of an emergency, the glasses can show them the best way out to the muster point. Or, as is often touted, maintenance teams will use it to access manuals or construction drawings without having to worry about them blowing away in the wind. As always, imagination is the limiting factor.

Also Read "The Shocking Truth About Wireless"

Our telephones are now basically all-digital, and radios in the plant environment are going the same route, migrating to Internet protocol (IP). Radio over IP (RoIP) is similar to VoIP, which can communicate over any IP network and, of course, with the appropriate gateway, to an analog backhaul or phone system.

To be able to do any of the above, you must have installed a reliable backbone network that covers the entire facility, as it would not be good if someone were in a location without coverage when it was critical to be able to reach them. So the industrial backhaul network not only must be rugged enough to install in an operating facility, but it also must avoid conflicts with other networks within and on the boundary of the facility, especially for the industry, scientific and medical (ISM) license-free bands.

Another challenge, in addition to managing the wireless networks, is the potential requirement for intrinsic safety in a potentially explosive atmosphere. I suppose you could always incorporate a gas detector interlock in the HUD to shut it down in the event of a potentially dangerous condition, but that may be counterproductive. Because the energy required to power these devices is low, intrinsic safety should not be an insurmountable challenge.

In addition to the technological challenges, there's also the risk of the person in the field being distracted by watching the information on the HUD instead of "being in the moment" in the real environment. The HUD should not be so intrusive that it distracts the operator because, like the displays used in some vehicles, they are transparent. The actual conditions behind the display are always there. They just might not be where the eye is focused, and we have had millennia of evolution to condition us to respond to peripheral motion.

Though this is still an infant field with challenges, the technology itself is available today that makes it feasible or workable to provide power to the operators, maintenance technicians and everyone else working in a plant environment to make it safer by providing better, context-aware information. All it takes is the infrastructure and investment, which (unfortunately when you look at potential of the industrial environment as compared to the consumer market) could leave us waiting a while longer before we can head into the plant for a wireless walkabout.