Bluetooth Low Energy makes an ideal short range wireless interface for industrial applications

Short range wireless communication, over local area and mesh networks, is the unsung hero of the burgeoning Internet of Things and Big Data. The freedom to locally monitor and communicate with machines and equipment without wires has opened up a host of new sensor based applications in the industrial world, especially when battery power is required, or when monitoring solutions are retrofit to existing equipment.

Based on those factors, the case for wireless inputs/outputs for remote monitoring in the oilfield has become overwhelming, as described in World OilPro’s excellent in depth article found on Oilpro “In the Digital Oilfield, No Wires is a No Brainer”.

Historically, most short range wireless solutions in industrial applications like oil and gas have used industrial or proprietary short range wireless technologies operating in ISM bands like 433, 868 or 902-928 Mhz, or in some limited cases WiFi. On the other hand, Bluetooth has traditionally been viewed as a “consumer” technology, and – until recently – has been shunned in industrial applications.

 

However, the case for low-power Bluetooth (BLE) has been growing stronger and stronger. The reasons are becoming obvious:

• No need to buy/deploy specialized equipment to interface with machines/equipment: Bluetooth 4.1 is included on every new iPhone & iPad (and many new Android devices), which means there are tremendous numbers of deployed devices capable of interrogating and commanding industrial equipment (including GPS tracking devices by the way). On the first weekend of its release, Apple sold 13 million units of the iPhone 6s, and 6s Plus. The installed iPhone/iPad and Android base is enormous, and businesses are realizing that they have to get on board with the world of “Apps”.

• BLE is simple and inexpensive to embed or attach to equipment and sensors: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is available in many integrator packaged modules like those from companies such as Blue Giga and usually cost under $20 in quantity. Many companies (like Geoforce) offer thorough documentation and other developers’ tools which can expedite the process of creating BLE based applications.

BLE is extremely low powered and is ideal for IoT solutions requiring battery operated sensors and/or devices: The growing world of connected devices and big data means attaching intelligence to billions of “things” (pipelines, containers, tanks, etc.) which often have no power supply of their own. Battery operated solutions are the only option in these cases. Bluetooth 4.x contains support for low-energy modes of operation that open doors for battery powered, long-life BLE connectivity.

• BLE Modules are very small and can easily be fit to sensors and/or OEM equipment: Modules typically are 1.5 centimeters or even smaller, which makes them fit just about any industrial application.

 

At Geoforce, our GTx series of GPS tracking devices are all enabled with Bluetooth Low Energy, also referred to as BLE or Bluetooth Smart. Our early decision about which short range radio technology to use was driven by practicalities. We needed a fully wireless, low power interface to our devices because:

• Many of our tracking devices hold stringent explosive safety ratings, such as IECEx/ATEX Zone 0 and thus need to have very low energy and RF emissions, and eliminate wired connectivity which could require electrical barriers per regulations to eliminate possibility for heat or spark to be created. Wireless simplifies digital interface for intrinsic safe applications.

• The need for ruggedness (including water resistance for offshore operations) mandated a completely sealed device. Without I/O openings, wireless becomes the best option for short range configuration and sensor inputs/outputs.

• Our focus on tracking non-powered, remote field equipment such as containers, tanks and transport units, meant that our tracking devices must be able to operate for multiple years on a battery alone.

• Time is money, so installations must be simple and effective.

• Customers are increasingly comfortable using Bluetooth to pair devices. With our continued work on providing remote configuration tools, Geoforce wanted to ensure that those tools would be simple and easy to use.

Overall, Geoforce is excited about the future use of BLE in our own solutions, not to mention the broader Internet of Things market.