Location-based control adds interesting capabilities for mobile personnel

With existing applications ranging from self-driving cars to apps that serve coupons when you're facing a particular store shelf, how can anyone patent location-based control?

By Paul Studebaker

It's been about 15 years since we first heard of Solaia Technology LLC’s "'318 patent" on communicating real-time data between a PLC and a SCADA system, and 12 years since a court found its claims unenforceable. Between 2001, when Solaia purchased the patent rights from Schneider Electric, and 2005, when Rockwell Automation won its case against it, Solaia is thought to have extracted millions of dollars in settlement and licensing fees from vendor and end user companies including Boeing, Borg Warner, Chevron Texaco, Conoco., Eastman Kodak, Eli Lilly, Enbridge, GE Fanuc, General Dynamics, Gillette, Kellogg, Lexmark, Shell Oil, Sun Chemical and Tyco.

According to the Control archives, the ‘318 patent dated back to 1991, when enterprising Schneider engineers devised an add-on to let Lotus 1-2-3 talk directly to the registers in a Square D PLC. By 2001, when Solaia sought to enforce it, we were surprised that such a patent could be defended and that anyone would try to license it, considering the widespread use of more modern approaches to PLC communications.

So, when I recently received notice that HMI/ SCADA provider PcVue was awarded a patent for “systems and methods for location-based control of equipment and facility resources,” I immediately thought of ‘318. With existing applications from self-driving cars to apps that serve coupons when you’re facing a particular store shelf, how can anyone patent location-based control? Perhaps, like the Solaia of 2001, PcVue was planning to go into the patent troll business?

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But Ed Nugent, COO at PcVue, assured me the emphasis on the patent is to highlight innovation, not to put competitors on notice. Called “contextual mobility,” U.S. Patent No. 9,819,509 covers a set of PcVue solutions where, via a mobile device, location information of a user in or near a facility is detected using a position sensor. The location information is communicated wirelessly from the user’s mobile device to a server.

There, one or more actions are determined as being available to the user based on the location information and user role, where actions represent those available in an industrial control system. Instructions are communicated to cause the mobile device to display the determined actions in a user interface. This enables the user to receive messages and interact with equipment or facility resources near the user by interacting with the one or more actions displayed in the user interface.

The location technologies include GPS, WiFi triangulation, Bluetooth sensors and QR codes, and available actions are allowed based on proximity. “Think of it as a look-up table based on geofenced, nested zones —plant, building, floor, room, next to a piece of equipment," Nugent told me. “We provide the tools for system integrators to construct the table of possible information and actions depending on where you are.” What you can do in a given location also depends on who you are—operator, technician, etc.—and your individual qualifications.

So, an operator can suppress an alarm, provided they're in sight of the cause, or a technician can start or stop a piece of equipment, only where they can observe that it’s safe. “Permitted actions are automatically sent to their phone, and removed when they move outside the zone,” Nugent says. Making information location- and role-specific helps reduce the amount that needs to be displayed and navigated on the small screens of mobile devices. The technology also has an option for tracking device location over time. “You can turn it on or off,” Nugent says. “With it on, you can see routes of, for example, security guards. Or you can put a device on a mobile asset, see where it goes, and know where it is

.”Rather than focus on the patent, Nugent says I should see it as a packaged system that can be licensed to HMI/SCADA applications. “It can be added to existing systems via OPC,” he says. “It’s a very efficient way to add this functionality.”