The automation and control industry to benefit by early uptake of IoT

March 1st, 2017, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT


The predictions about how many sensors and measurement devices will be connected to the internet by 2025 – a mere eight years from now – is increasing exponentially. Bell Lab’s president Marcus Weldon says currently a typical cellular base station on a tower can handle signalling for about 1200 devices. That may be enough to handle the mobile subscribers in an area but when the internet of things (IoT) really takes off that cell may have to handle signals from 300 000 devices.

While sensor development may seem the priority, the measurement, instrumentation and control industry must widen its focus to include the communication and connectivity requirements at an early stage.

Like other massive computing tasks, signalling is moving into the cloud. But because it involves real-time communication between the base station and nearby radios, it can’t be done on giant regional data centres, as with the ones companies like Google and Amazon operate. If signals have to travel half-way across a continent, the tower connection with the device will time out and have to start all over again.

To overcome this the computing needs to be virtualised and spread out among facilities closer to the cell tower. It will become even more problematic with 5G networks which at this stage are seen as the way to handle data from millions of embedded sensors. While no final standards for 5G have been decided on, industry is agreed that latency has to be kept to 1 ms.  This is necessary for things like remote video monitoring and remote control of equipment in near real time, including automatic motor vehicles.

Cells will have to be distributed, and are most likely to be much smaller but much closer to users to allow carriers to reuse frequencies. The age of the small cells was first mooted a few years ago but delayed partly because of the complicated issue of mounting base stations which first had to be resolved.  The proliferation of new connected devices will now be necessary, according to Weldon.  He said that small cells will be packed close enough to allow the use of very high frequencies at short ranges of 100 m or less, and that researchers at Alcatel-Lucent (recently merged with Nokia) and a number of other companies like Ericsson have been studying these millimeter wave frequencies.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa has also engaged with the industry to find ways to simplify the licensing of these frequencies or even make them available licence-free. A final determination is expected by the end of March 2017.

According to Weldon, what is happening in mobile now is the start of a trend as big as the industrial revolution and the emergence of the internet. It is now just the beginning and will end up in just about everything connected, measured and controlled.

While all this seems to be a communication problem, the instrumentation, measurement and control industry should get involved at this early stage so that the requirements are carefully considered, not just from a technological but also from a cost implication. While carriers have to rebuild their system, the measurement and control industry must specify its requirements. While the amount of data handling will be huge, to ultimate derive benefit from IoT new algorithms to analyse the big date volume and make sense of it to drive the industry forward is vital.

In a white paper published by Ericsson in 2016, the company talks about connectivity as the foundation of IoT. Many IoT devices will be served by radio technologies that operate on unlicensed spectrum that are designed for short range connectivity with limited quality of service (QoS) and the security requirements typical for a home or indoor environment. The paper puts forward two alternative connectivity tracks: cellular and unlicensed low power wide area networks.

In the mobile/cellular environment both Vodacom and MTN  are talking about “NB-IoT” – a  low power wide area (LPWA) network technology which enables new use cases for IoT solutions. LPWA networks are able to communicate to devices where radio penetration has traditionally not been feasible and with a low power overhead in the communications process. A key characteristic of LPWA devices is power efficiency, resulting in devices being deployed in-field with batteries which could last up to many years. NB-IoT networks run on existing licensed spectrum, ensuring integrity of the communications channel as well as the delivery of data from the device to the end point.

In the unlicensed low power wide area networks (U-LPWA) environment there are several propriety radio technologies such as SIXFOX and LoRa, developed solely for machine type communication application, addressing the ultra-low-end sensor segment with limited demands in throughput, reliability or QoS. One way to segment IoT applications is to categorise them according to coverage needs and performance requirements.

The cellular companies are of the opinion that their customised IoT networks have a distinct advantage over unlicensed LPWA. The global reach, QoS, ecosystem, scalability, diversity and security of the cellular networks are all factors that can support fast uptake and the success of IoT.

At Africom 2016 two South African cellular companies announced their IoT readiness. No doubt others will also join the evolution.

MTN in partnership with Huawei last year launched the Huawei’s LTE-based narrow broadband IoT (NB-IoT) technology which will enable MTN to deliver ubiquitous, cellular IoT.  This technology will spark new business opportunities in smart metering, smart parking, logistics tracking, and smart cities in Africa.

Vodacom has commenced its narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) network build, which it plans to commercially launch in major metropolitan areas across South Africa this year. Vodacom has already begun the process of upgrading the various components of its network to support NB-IoT.

Perhaps it will be industry organisations that take the lead in the evolution of IoT to take the industry to new levels?

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