Wireless Takes Center Stage at ISA Expo

The outlook for industrial wireless networking was one of the hottest topics at the ISA Expo 2006 conference and exhibition, sponsored by the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA, www.isa.org) Oct. 17-19 in Houston. Of more than 400 exhibitors at the event, some 64 percent, excluding publication companies, had some sort of wireless product or service in their booths, according to Peter Fuhr, chief technology officer at wireless networking company Apprion, Moffat Field, Calif., who did an on-site booth survey.

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While vendors touted their wireless products at the show, end-user concerns over security, as well as a lack of an industrial wireless standard, continues to slow acceptance of wireless technology for use in plants and factories, many agreed.

Both of those concerns were addressed during a well-attended panel session at the show, titled “Security and Safe Operation of Wireless Devices in a Hazardous Environment.” The panel, which was moderated by Fuhr, included representatives from both vendors and end-user companies, many of whom are active in the ISA SP100 committee that is developing an industrial wireless standard. Along with the Hart Wireless Working Group, SP100 is one of two high-profile groups working on an industrial wireless standard.

Panel participants offered encouraging words on both the wireless security and wireless standards fronts. “In my opinion, we have enough knowledge to produce secure systems that are good enough to protect against very well-funded attackers,” said Tom Phinney, a senior fellow at automation vendor Honeywell. Phinney chairs the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) committee that is developing cyber security standards.

Given the rapid advance of technology, today’s wireless systems and equipment that may be used for several decades in plants and factories must be strong enough to withstand cyber attacks from the much more powerful computers of the future, Phinney reminded the audience. But when it comes to wireless, “the good news is that we have the technical ability to solve those problems,” Phinney said. “I don’t see security as an inherently constraining issue on wireless.”

On the wireless standards front, SP100 Co-Chair Wayne Manges, industrial wireless program manager at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn., told the audience that the first draft of the SP100 industrial wireless standard is due out during 2007. “We expect that the manufacturers will start building to that draft standard,” he said. “So you’ll see product starting in ’07 that will meet the SP100 standard.” Official release of the standard will come in 2008, Manges added.

In response to an audience question about the compatibility of today’s wireless systems with the forthcoming standard, Manges said that will hopefully not be a problem. “I would expect that [today’s wireless systems from] astute suppliers will be backward compatible, and be transparent,” he said.

Backward compatible?

Greg LaFramboise, another panel participant representing Chevron, and a voting member of SP100, noted that his company is buying wireless products today. The major vendors are engaged with the wireless standard development activity, and so should be able to position their products for backward compatibility, he indicated. But, he added, “I would always ask them how they view a migration path.”

Another panel participant, Herman Storey, of Shell Global Solutions, and also an SP100 voting member, noted that once the SP100 standard comes out, today’s wireless products will hopefully be upgradeable via software. “My other great hope is that we can accommodate more than one radio chip in this standard,” Storey added, “because I think we’re going to need to migrate with the technology on radios. One radio is just not going to be adequate for the next 20 years.”

Storey also called for consideration of other industry segments by the process industry-oriented SP100 committee. “Hopefully, we [on the SP100 committee] can do something that’s not totally incompatible with the discrete manufacturing industry, just because we’re a bunch of process guys,” he noted. “We haven’t addressed that yet, but that need is there also.

 

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