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April 29, 2009
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Going Wireless: Wireless Technology Is Ready For Industrial Use

Wireless works in a plant, but you’ll want to be careful regarding which “flavor” you choose

Wireless Technology now provides secure, reliable communication for remote field sites and applications where wires cannot be run for practical or economic reasons. For maintenance purposes, wireless can be used to acquire condition monitoring data from pumps and machines, effluent data from remote monitoring stations, or process data from an I/O system.

For example, a wireless system monitors a weather station and the flow of effluent leaving a chemical plant. The plant’s weather station is 1.5 miles from the main control room. It has a data logger that reads inputs from an anemometer to measure wind speed and direction, a temperature gauge and a humidity gauge. The data logger connects to a wireless remote radio frequency (RF) transmitter module, which broadcasts a 900MHz, frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) signal via a YAGI directional antenna installed at the top of a tall boom located beside the weather station building. This posed no problem.

However, the effluent monitoring station was thought to be impossible to connect via wireless. Although the distance from this monitoring station to the control room is only one-quarter mile, the RF signal had to pass through a four-story boiler building. Nevertheless, the application was tested before installation, and it worked perfectly. The lesson here is that wireless works in places where you might think it can’t. All you have to do is test it.

There are many flavors of wireless, and an understanding is needed to determine the best solution for any particular application.Wireless can be licensed or unlicensed, Ethernet or serial interface, narrow band or spread spectrum, secure or open protocol,Wi-fi…the list goes on. This article provides an introduction to this powerful technology.

The radio spectrum
The range of approximately 9 kilohertz (kHz) to gigahertz (GHz) can be used to broadcast wireless communications. Frequencies higher than these are part of the infrared spectrum, light spectrum, X-rays, etc. Since the RF spectrum is a limited resource used by television, radio, cellular telephones and other wireless devices, the spectrum is allocated by government agencies that regulate what portion of the spectrum may be used for specific types of communication or broadcast.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) governs the allocation of frequencies to non-government users. FCC has limited the use of Industrial, Scientific, and Medical (ISM) equipment to operate in the 902-928MHz, 2400-2483.5MHz and 5725-5875MHz bands,with limitations on signal strength, power, and other radio transmission parameters. These bands are known as unlicensed bands, and can be used freely within FCC guidelines. Other bands in the spectrum can be used with the grant of a license from the FCC. (Editor’s Note: For a quick definition of the various bands in the RF spectrum, as well as their uses, log on to: http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary. com/radio+frequency )

Licensed or unlicensed
A license granted by the FCC is needed to operate in a licensed frequency. Ideally, these frequencies are interference-free, and legal recourse is available if there is interference. The drawbacks are a complicated and lengthy procedure in obtaining a license, not having the ability to purchase off-the-shelf radios since they must be manufactured per the licensed frequency, and, of course, the costs of obtaining and maintaining the license.

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License-free implies the use of one of the frequencies the FCC has set aside for open use without needing to register or authorize them. Based on where the system will be located, there are limitations on the maximum transmission power. For example, in the U.S., in the 900MHz band, the maximum power may be 1 Watt or 4 Watts EIRP (Effective Isotropic Radiated Power).

The advantages of using unlicensed frequencies are clear: no cost, time or hassle in obtaining licenses; many manufacturers and suppliers who serve this market; and lower startup costs, because a license is not needed. The drawback lies in the idea that since these are unlicensed bands, they can be “crowded” and, therefore, may lead to interference and loss of transmission. That‘s where spread spectrum comes in. Spread spectrum radios deal with interference very effectively and perform well, even in the presence of RF noise.

Spread spectrum systems
Spread Spectrum is a method of spreading the RF signal across a wide band of frequencies at low power, versus concentrating the power in a single frequency as is done in narrowband channel transmission. Narrowband refers to a signal which occupies only a small section of the RF spectrum, whereas wideband or broadband signal occupies a larger section of the RF spectrum. The two most common forms of spread spectrum radio are frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS), and direct sequence spread spectrum (DSSS). Most unlicensed radios on the market are spread spectrum.

As the name implies, frequency hopping changes the frequency of the transmission at regular intervals of time. The advantage of frequency hopping is obvious: since the transmitter changes the frequency at which it is broadcasting the message so often, only a receiver programmed with the same algorithm would be able to listen and follow the message. The receiver must be set to the same pseudo-random hopping pattern, and listen for the sender’s message at precisely the correct time at the correct frequency. Fig. 1 shows how the frequency of the signal changes with time. Each frequency hop is equal in power and dwell time (the length of time to stay on one channel). Fig. 2 shows a two dimensional representation of frequency hopping, showing that the frequency of the radio changes for each period of time. The hop pattern is based on a pseudo random sequence.

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DSSS combines the data signal with a higher data-rate bit-sequence-also known as a ‘chipping code’-thereby “spreading” the signal over greater bandwidth. In other words, the signal is multiplied by a noise signal generated through a pseudo-random sequence of 1 and -1 bits. The receiver then multiplies the signal by the same noise to arrive at the original message (since 1 x 1 = 1 and -1 x -1 = 1).

When the signal is “spread,” the transmission power of the original narrowband signal is distributed over the wider bandwidth, thereby decreasing the power at any one particular frequency (also referred to as low power density). Fig. 3 shows the signal over a narrow part of the RF spectrum. In Fig. 4, that signal has been spread over a larger part of the spectrum, keeping the overall energy the same, but decreasing the energy per frequency. Since spreading the signal reduces the power in any one part of the spectrum, the signal can appear as noise. The receiver must recognize this signal and demodulate it to arrive at the original signal without the added chipping code. FHSS and DSSS both have their place in industry and can both be the “better” technology based on the application. Rather than debating which is better, it is more important to understand the differences, and then select the best fit for the application. In general, a decision involves:

  • Throughput
  • Colocation
  • Interference
  • Distance
  • Security

Throughput
Throughput is the average amount of data communicated in the system every second. This is probably the first decision factor in most cases. DSSS has a much higher throughput than FHSS because of a much more efficient use of its bandwidth and employing a much larger section of the bandwidth for each transmission. In most industrial remote I/O applications, the throughput of FHSS is not a problem.

As the size of the network changes or the data rate increases, this may become a greater consideration. Most FHSS radios offer a throughput of 50-115 kbps for Ethernet radios.Most DSSS radios offer a throughput of 1-10 Mbps. Although DSSS radios have a higher throughput than FHSS radios, one would be hard pressed to find any DSSS radios that serve the security and distance needs of the industrial process control and SCADA market. Unlike FHSS radios, which operate over 26MHz of the spectrum in the 900MHz band (902-928MHz), and DSSS radios, which operate over 22MHz of the 2.4GHz band, licensed narrow band radios are limited to 12.5kHz of the spectrum.Naturally, as the width of the spectrum is limited, the bandwidth and throughput will be limited as well.Most licensed frequency narrowband radios offer a throughput of 6400 to 19200 bps.

Collocation
Collocation refers to having multiple independent RF systems located in the same vicinity. DSSS does not allow for a high number of radio networks to operate in close proximity as they are spreading the signal across the same range of frequencies. For example, within the 2.4GHz ISM band, DSSS allows only three collocated channels. Each DSSS transmission is spread over 22MHz of the spectrum, which allows only three sets of radios to operate without overlapping frequencies.

FHSS, on the other hand, allows for multiple networks to use the same band because of different hopping patterns. Hopping patterns which use different frequencies at different times over the same bandwidth are called orthogonal patterns. FHSS uses orthogonal hopping routines to have multiple radio networks in the same vicinity without causing interference with each other. That is a huge plus when designing large networks, and needing to separate one communication network from another. Many lab studies show that up to 15 FHSS networks may be collocated, whereas only 3 DSSS networks may be collocated. Narrowband radios obviously cannot be collocated as they operate on the same 12.5MHz of the spectrum.

Interference
Interference is RF noise in the vicinity and in the same part of the RF spectrum. A combining of the two signals can generate a new RF wave or can cause losses or cancellation in the intended signal. Spread Spectrum in general is known to tolerate interference very well, although there is a difference in how the different flavors handle it.When a DSSS goingwireless4receiver finds narrowband signal interference, it multiplies the received signal by the chipping code to retrieve the original message. This causes the original signal to appear as a strong narrow band; the interference gets spread as a low power wideband signal and appears as noise, and thus can be ignored.

In essence, the very thing that makes DSSS radios spread the signal to below the noise floor is the same thing that allows DSSS radios to ignore narrowband interference when demodulating a signal. Therefore, DSSS is known to tolerate interference very well, but it is prone to fail when the interference is at a higher total transmission power, and the demodulation effect does not drop the interfering signal below the power level of the original signal.

Given that FHSS operates over 83.5MHz of the spectrum in the 2.4GHz band, producing high power signals at particular frequencies (equivalent to having many short synchronized bursts of narrowband signal) it will avoid interference as long as it is not on the same frequency as the narrowband interferer.Narrowband interference will, at most, block a few hops which the system can compensate for by moving the message to a different frequency. Also, the FCC rules require a minimum separation of frequency in consecutive hops, and therefore the chance of a narrowband signal interfering in consecutive hops is minimized.

When it comes to wideband interference, DSSS is not so robust. Since DSSS spreads its signal out over 22MHz of the spectrum all at once at a much lower power, if that 22MHz of the spectrum is blocked by noise or a higher power signal, it can block 100% of the DSSS transmission, although it will only block 25% of the FHSS transmission. In this scenario, FHSS will lose some efficiency, but not be a total loss.

In licensed radios the bandwidth is narrow, so a slight interference in the range can completely jam transmission. In this case, highly directional antennas and band pass filters may be used to allow for uninterrupted communication, or legal action may be pursued against the interferer.

802.11 radios are more prone to interference since there are so many readily available devices in this band. Ever notice how your microwave interferes with your cordless phone at home? They both operate in the 2.4GHz range, the same as the rest of 802.11 devices. Security becomes a greater concern with these radios.

If the intended receiver of a transmitter is located closer to other transmitters and farther from its own partner, it is known as a Near/Far problem. The nearby transmitters can potentially drown the receiver in foreign signals with high power levels. Most DSSS systems would fail completely in this scenario. The same scenario in a FHSS system would cause some hops to be blocked but would maintain the integrity of the system. In a licensed radio system, it would depend on the frequency of the foreign signals. If they were on the same or close frequency, it would drown the intended signal, but there would be recourse for action against the offender unless they have a license as well.

Distance
Distance is closely related to link connectivity, or the strength of an RF link between a transmitter and a receiver, and at what distance they can maintain a robust link. Given that the power level is the same, and the modulation technique is the same, a 900MHz radio will have higher link connectivity than a 2.4GHz radio. As the frequency in the RF spectrum increases, the transmission distance decreases if all other factors remain the same. The ability to penetrate walls and object also decreases as the frequency increases.Higher frequencies in the spectrum tend to display reflective properties. For example, a 2.4GHz RF wave can bounce off reflective walls of buildings and tunnels. Based on the application, this can be used as an advantage to take the signal farther, or it may be a disadvantage causing multipath, or no path, because the signal is bouncing back.

FCC limits the output power on spread spectrum radios. DSSS consistently transmits at a low power, as discussed above, and stays within the FCC regulation by doing so. This limits the distance of transmission for DSSS radios, and thus this may be a limitation for many of the industrial applications. FHSS radios, on the other hand, transmit at high power on particular frequencies within the hopping sequence, but the average power on the spectrum is low, and therefore can meet with the regulations. Since the actual signal is transmitting at a much higher power than the DSSS, it can travel further.Most FHSS radios are capable of transmitting over 15 miles, and longer distances with higher gain antennas.

802.11 radios, although available in both DSSS as well as FHSS, have a high bandwidth and data rate, up to 54Mbps (at the time of this publication). But it is important to note that this throughput is for very short distances, and downgrades very quickly as the distance between the radio modems increases. For example, a distance of 300 feet would drop the 54Mbps rate down to 2Mbps. This makes this radio ideal for a small office or home application, but not for many industrial applications where there is a need to transmit data over several miles.

Since narrowband radios tend to be a lower frequency, they are a good choice in applications where FHSS radios cannot provide adequate distance. A proper application for narrow band licensed radios is when there is a need to use a lower frequency to either travel over a greater distance, or be able to follow the curvature of the earth more closely and provide link connectivity in areas where line of sight is hard to achieve.

Security
Since DSSS signals run at such low power, the signals are difficult to detect by intruders. One strong feature of DSSS is its ability to decrease the energy in the signal by spreading the energy of the original narrowband signal over a larger bandwidth, thereby decreasing the power spectral density. In essence, this can bring the signal level below the noise floor, thereby making the signal “invisible” to would-be intruders. On the same note, however, if the chipping code is known or is very short, then it is much easier to detect the DSSS transmission and retrieve the signal since it has a limited number of carrier frequencies. Many DSSS systems offer encryption as a security feature, although this increases the cost of the system and lowers the performance, because of the processing power and transmission overhead for encoding the message.

For an intruder to successfully tune into a FHSS system, he needs to know the frequencies used, the hopping sequence, the dwell time and any included encryption. Given that for the 2.4GHz band the maximum dwell time is 400ms over 75 channels, it is almost impossible to detect and follow a FHSS signal if the receiver is not configured with the same hopping sequence, etc. In addition, most FHSS systems today come with high security features such as dynamic key encryption and CRC error bit checking.

Today,Wireless Local Area Networks (WLAN) are becoming increasingly popular. Many of these networks use the 802.11 standard, an open protocol developed by IEEE.Wi-fiis a standard logo used by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) to certify 802.11 products. Although industrial FHSS radios tend to not be Wi-fi, and therefore not compatible with these WLANs, there may be a good chance for interference due to them operating in the same bandwidth. Since most Wi-fiproducts operate in the 2.4 or 5GHz bands, it may be a good idea to stick with a 900MHz radio in industrial applications, if the governing body allows this range (Europe allows only 2.4GHz, not 900MHz). This will also provide an added security measure against RF sniffers (a tool used by hackers) in the more popular 2.4 band.

Security is one of the top issues discussed in the wireless technology sector. Recent articles about “drive-by hackers” have left present and potential consumers of wireless technology wary of possible infiltrations. Consumers must understand that 802.11 standards are open standards and can be easier to hack than many of the industrial proprietary radio systems.

The confusion about security stems from a lack of understanding of the different types of wireless technology. Today, Wi-fi(802.11a, b, and g) seems to be the technology of choice for many applications in the IT world, homes and small offices. 802.11 is an open standard in which many vendors, customers and hackers have access to the standard.While many of these systems have the ability to use encryption like AES and WEP, many users forget or neglect to enable these safeguards which would make their systems more secure.Moreover, features like MAC filtering can also be used to prevent unauthorized access by intruders on the network. Nonetheless, many industrial end users are very wary about sending industrial control information over standards that are totally “open.”

So, how do users of wireless technology protect themselves from infiltrators? One almost certain way is to use non- 802.11 devices that employ proprietary protocols that protect networks from intruders. Frequency hopping spread spectrum radios have an inherent security feature built into them. First, only the radios on the network that are programmed with the “hop pattern” algorithm can see the data. Second, the proprietary, non-standard, encryption method of the closed radio system will further prevent any intruder from being able to decipher that data.

The idea that a licensed frequency network is more secure may be misleading. As long as the frequency is known, anyone can dial into the frequency, and as long as they can hack into the password and encryption, they are in. The added security benefits that were available in spread spectrum are gone since licensed frequencies operate in narrowband. Frequency hopping spread spectrum is by far the safest, most secure form of wireless technology available today.

Mesh radio networks
Mesh radio is based on the concept of every radio in a network having peer-topeer capability. Mesh networking is becoming popular since its communication path has the ability to be quite dynamic. Like the worldwide Web, mesh nodes make and monitor multiple paths to the same destination to ensure that there is always a backup communication path for the data packets.

There are many concerns that developers of mesh technology are still trying to address, such as latency and throughput. The concept of mesh is not new. The internet and phone service are excellent mesh networks based in a wired world. Each node can initiate communication with another node and exchange information.

0107_goingwireless_img8Summary
In conclusion, the choice of radio technology to use should be based on the needs of the application. For most industrial process control applications, proprietary protocol license-free frequency hopping spread spectrum radios (Fig. 5) are the best choice because of lower cost and higher security capabilities in comparison to licensed radios.When distances are too great for a strong link between FHSS radios with repeaters, then licensed narrowband radios should be considered for better link connectivity. The cost of licensing may offset the cost of installing extra repeaters in a FHSS system.

As more more industrial applications require greater throughput, networks employing DSSS that enable TCP/IP and other open Ethernet packets to pass at higher data rates will be implemented. This is a very good solution where PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), DCS (Distributed Control Systems) and PCS (Process Control Systems) need to share large amounts of data with one another or upper level systems like MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) and ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems.

When considering a wireless installation, check with a company offering site surveys that allow you to install radios at remote locations to test connectivity and throughput capability. Often this is the only way to ensure that the proposed network architecture will satisfy your application requirements. These demo radios also let you look at the noise floor of the plant area, signal strength, packet success rate and the ability to identify if there are any segments of the license free bandwidth that are currently too crowded for effective communication throughput. If this is the case, then hop patterns can be programmed that jump around that noisy area instead of through it. MT


Gary Mathur is an applications engineer with Moore Industries-International, in North Hills, CA. He holds Bachelor’s and Masters degrees in Electronics Engineering from Agra University, and worked for 12 years with Emerson Process Management before joining Moore. For more information on the products referenced in this article, telephone: (818) 894-7111; e-mail: GMathur@miinet.com


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