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Wireless Makes Noise At ISA Expo

Discussions of industrial wireless products and applications filled the air at the Houston event—not to mention lots of radio frequency waves.

WirelessHart was heavily promoted at the Hart Communication Foundation booth at ISA Expo, with wireless equipment from multiple
WirelessHart was heavily promoted at the Hart Communication Foundation booth at ISA Expo, with wireless equipment from multiple

Talk about noisy! According to spectrum analysis performed by Apprion, a Moffett Field, Calif., wireless technology company, more than 90 Wi-Fi, or Wireless Fidelity, access points were in use on the show floor at the ISA Expo, Oct. 2-4 in Houston.  

“Is this a congested RF (radio frequency) environment? Absolutely. There are lots of things happening. And what’s interesting to see is that the 802.15.4-based field transmitters are basically just piping their data right through this amazing amount of background noise and interference,” said Peter Fuhr, Apprion chief technology officer, speaking at a press conference held to discuss ISA100 and the pending ISA100.11a wireless networking standard. The standard, being developed by the SP100 committee of the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA), will be based on radios built to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer’s IEEE 802.15.4 standard. 

Indeed, the buzz about industrial wireless technology was evident everywhere at the show, with vendors from one side of the floor to the other demonstrating one kind of wireless gizmo or another. Following are capsule reports on a few of the wireless activities at the show.  

WirelessHart outlook 

While ISA100.11a is expected to emerge as an official standard some time in 2008, one industrial wireless standard that is already official is WirelessHart, which was released as part of the Hart 7 specification on Sept. 7 by the Hart Communication Foundation (HCF). The HCF booth at the ISA Expo featured wireless devices from multiple vendors, including ABB, Elpro, Emerson Process Management, Endress+Hauser, MacTek, Pepperl+Fuchs, Phoenix Contact, Siemens and Yokogawa.  

Many suppliers at the HCF booth were pledging to deliver WirelessHart-compliant devices during the first half of 2008. One early market is expected in WirelessHart adapter products, which will enable users of existing Hart devices to wirelessly capture currently unused digital diagnostic data from the devices. “It’s a concept that end-users grasp very quickly. They know there is information available [from Hart devices], and they’re ready to use it as soon as they can get it,” said Ron Helson, HCF executive director.  

Some industry watchers believe that a strong WirelessHart adapter market will depend upon adapter pricing being set at $500 or less. Helson said that current indications are that WirelessHart adapters from various vendors will be priced initially at between $500 and $1,000. 

Low-power Wi-Fi sensors 

ISA Expo was the coming-out party for GainSpan Corp., a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Wi-Fi semiconductor company founded in September 2006 that is a spinout from chip giant Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif. GainSpan’s GS1010 System-on-a-Chip (SoC) is designed as a wireless sensor network solution that leverages widely deployed Wi-Fi, or IEEE 802.11, network technology, with a design that enables ultra-low power operation. For wireless sensor applications such as temperature monitoring for energy management or industrial equipment condition monitoring, the GS1010 will work typically for five to 10 years using a single AA battery, said Vijay Parmar, GainSpan president and chief executive officer. 

The 10 millimeter square GS1010 circuit integrates an embedded 802.11b/g radio, two 32-bit ARM7 microcontrollers, real-time clock and power management unit, memory, multiple inputs/outputs and support for location awareness. GainSpan chose Wi-Fi because of its increasing ubiquity, said Parmer. “Though it’s been a little slow on the process side, Wi-Fi already has 50 percent to 60 percent penetration in discrete manufacturing.” 

GainSpan partners

One vendor that is planning to use the GainSpan chip is Oceana Sensor, Virginia Beach, Va. At ISA Expo, Oceana Sensor unveiled its Wireless Sensor Module, or WSeM. The WSeM—which relies on the GainSpan SoC and other components on a tiny circuit board—can provide drop-in Wi-Fi capability for existing sensors networks or new designs, the company said. The WSeM can accommodate up to four different sensor inputs.  

“We’re betting on Wi-Fi, because we’ve found that in factories, the first thing the IT (information technology) department says is, ‘We already have Wi-Fi, and that’s all we’re going to support,’ ” observed Alex Kalasinsky, president and chief executive officer at Oceana Sensor. 

Sensicast Systems Inc., Needham, Mass., was another ISA Expo exhibitor that is planning to make use of the GainSpan chip. At the show, Sensicast announced plans for its SensiNet Open Platform, by which the company’s vendor partners can choose any of the leading wireless industry standards—including 802.11 Wi-Fi and forthcoming ISA100 protocols—for use with SensiNet wireless sensor networking (WSN) offerings supplied by Sensicast. That’s in addition to Sensicast’s proprietary SensiMesh 802.15.4 protocol. To bring its SensiNet Wi-Fi sensor solution to the market immediately, Sensicast announced at ISA Expo an ongoing development partnership with GainSpan to make use of the GS1010 chip in SensiNet Smart Sensors. 

ISA100 look-ahead 

“Early on, we concluded that the ISA100 standards for wireless industrial automation would be a family of standards,” said Wayne Manges, co-chair of the SP100 committee, during an ISA100 press conference at the show. And with a draft standard expected soon on the first standard—ISA100.11a, which is focused on process industries needs—the committee recently called for expressions of interest on what its next priorities should be. 

Four candidate areas have been identified, Manges said. One is a wireless standard for discrete manufacturing. A second involves radio frequency identification (RFID) real-time location services, said Manges, adding that a study group has been created to develop a guiding document for how to use RFID technologies in the process industries.  

A third area involves a possible security group to be formed within SP100, not to replace the ISA99 security standard for industrial automation, but to focus on ways to integrate wireless security concerns with those in the wired world, Manges said. A fourth candidate area for SP100 investigation involves longer-range options, for applications such as pipelines and electrical distribution systems in which data gathering and communications must cover long distances.  

On another front, meetings were held during ISA Expo between the SP100 committee and HCF representatives regarding an earlier announced agreement to strive for a consensus approach to incorporate WirelessHart into the ISA100 standard. And while discussions reportedly became heated at times, the SP100 group did develop both a short-term and long-term plan for integrating WirelessHart into ISA100.11a, according to Manges, though no details were provided.

GainSpan Corp.

Hart Communication Foundation

Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society

Oceana Sensor

Sensicast Systems Inc.

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