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Image of Netbiter remote management screen
Engineers are always under pressure to reduce costs, improve quality and
optimise plant utilisation, but as the saying goes, if you can’t measure it,
you can’t control it. Stuart Hannah of HMS Industrial Networks explains
how the use of cloud computing and the Internet make remote
management of your plant and assets a much simpler and more attractive
proposition than in the past.

 

As markets become tougher and companies seek to improve their
competitiveness, there is an increasing need to monitor where assets are and
what is happening with them, and to use this knowledge to improve
performance.

 

Many companies already do this, for example by using supervisory control and
data acquisition (SCADA) software, although this can become both complex
and expensive for multiple locations. Now however, the simplification of remote
monitoring technology makes it viable to monitor anything from a single device
(such as a PLC or Frequency Inverter) to multiple installations spread across
the globe safely and securely. Issues regarding security of the data and access
to it are important features of any system, particularly where the Internet is
involved.

 

The trend for remote monitoring systems is towards the use of cloud computing.
Cloud computing is simply the term used when services such as infrastructure,
applications and business processes are delivered on demand using remote
servers accessed via the Internet. The big advantage of providing software as a
service (SaaS) in this way is that it is scalable (both up and down), reliable and
easily accessible. Importantly, new applications can be trialled, deployed and
shared quickly and easily. Decision making and implementation can also be
faster as there is no capital expenditure needed, and the resources can be used
to complement or replace the user’s own ICT infrastructure.

 

Improved access to information is the main benefit leading to the saving of time,
improving performance and saving resources. From any computer or mobile
device with an Internet connection you can see what’s happening 24/7.
Furthermore, if there are any problems you can instantly receive alarm emails
or text messages, so if equipment starts to function out of parameters you can
be notified and react before failure occurs. You can log historical data and
produce graphical trends, automatically backup or restore remote
configurations, and even can track/monitor vehicle locations and record their
loading or status in real-time.

 

How it works

Image of Netbiter secure communication path and storage

Fig 1. Secure server for collection and storage of data from remote devices

 

There are three main elements to any cloud based remote monitoring solution.
The first is the physical layer that comprises of communication gateway devices
that link to your equipment, acquire the data, and communicate it to the remote
server. The second is the remote server that collects and stores the data, and
the third is secure access to the data through a customised online dashboard.

 

Communication gateway devices take several forms for ease of connection to
the device or equipment being monitored. The connection is generally through
serial communications or by using a popular open protocol such as Modbus
RTU. Additional functionalities such as global positioning systems (GPS) are
available to meet the demands for location based services (LBS) like tracking
and geofencing (providing notification when a tracked device enters or leaves a
predetermined geographical location).

 

Acquired data is sent to the remote server by the gateway devices at selected
logging intervals ranging from real-time to 300 seconds as demanded by the
application. To communicate with the server, gateways generally use either
quad-band GSM/GPRS wireless technologies or Ethernet TCP/IP connections:
both may be used concurrently on the same installation. GSM (Global Systems
for Mobile Communications) is the most widely used technology for mobile
communications, whereas GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) is a newer
function integrated into GSM that allows for the simultaneous transmission of
high speed data across a mobile telephone network. The costs for data only
transmissions using GPRS are significantly lower than for voice calls. To ensure
that communication using wireless GPRS is secure, dedicated SIM cards are an
option (if security is not an issue normal data enabled SIM cards can be used).
This means it is not possible to ping or try to access the remote site except
through the data centre and avoids unnecessary GPRS traffic.

 

Where the communication gateways use Ethernet based connectivity it is
normally via wide/local area networks (WAN/LAN) with direct connection to the
server via the Internet. The use of special firewall friendly communications
between the remote gateways and the data centre makes it possible to retain
the existing broadband security infrastructure at the customer’s site. This
procedure is accepted by most IT departments and gives confidence that the
installation is controlled from a security perspective. Communication gateway
devices are normally pre-configured and require no programming or IT
expertise, so neither virtual private network (VPN) nor static IP addresses are
needed.

 

Data is communicated to and stored on a remote server. In the case of HMS’s
Netbiter Argos 3 solution the server is located at one of three data centres and
the data backed up at the other two. Information held there can be displayed
graphically in the form of customised dashboards, or downloaded into the
customer’s businesses management system for analysis and reporting. All
server activity is logged at a password holder level.

 

Information on the server is viewed using a standard web browser. To simplify
configuration of the graphical display, standard tools are incorporated into the
server. These include downloadable device templates for establishing
communications between the remote plant and the communicating device and
auto web pages (dashboards). Some systems contain libraries of ready-made
web page dashboards for applications such as power generators, water/waste
management, base stations, building and HVAC management and many more.

 

Image of Netbiter remote alarm dashboard

Fig 2. Example of a simple dashboard display with integrated GPS

User access is controlled by multi-level passwords, which are linked to a user
profile to define the level of information or control available. Access is available
from any location via the Internet using any suitable PC or mobile device such
as a Smartphone, tablet or similar, and because the dashboard is displayed on
a standard web browser no special software is required by the user. This makes
it convenient for field service staff or business managers away from base.

 

Access to the server information means users can log historical data and
produce graphical trends or diagnostics, manage alarms, or automatically
backup or restore remote configurations. Although not originally conceived as a
SCADA package, the functionality exists to easily configure one. The servers
data can also be accessed by the users own ERP system for further analysis
and reporting.

 

Stand-alone applications

For monitoring and controlling simple stand-alone equipment not required to
communicate with the central server, a range of communication gateways with
integrated web server functionality are often used. These can be wired or
wireless types, and support for an external GPS receiver means that it is also
possible to identify the location of the equipment. This can be particularly useful
for fleets of rental machines such as standby generators.
In addition to handling communications, these devices will often provide built-in
features for data logging, alarm handling (via email of SMS messaging), and
configurable web pages for monitoring and control from remote locations via the
Internet without special tools or software.

 

Applications

Anywhere information from remote locations needs to be collected and
analysed has the potential to use remote monitoring. It can reduce costs and
improve equipment performance by flagging problems at an early stage and
optimise maintenance programmes. Popular applications include:

 

  • the monitoring of fuel, oil, battery condition of standby generators
  • tank management to monitor levels and temperatures, schedule refills and optimise logistics
  • remote pumping station monitoring to notify if service interruptions, unauthorised entry, and reduce routine service visits
  • in building automation to optimise energy consumption, monitor HVAC and security

 

Remote management can be integrated into new equipment to provide
customers with enhanced functionality and services, or added to existing fixed
or moving assets. It helps avoid unnecessary travelling of service personnel to
remote locations as emergency visits can often be avoided. It saves time,
money and offers businesses the opportunity to provide new services, and it’s
simple to implement.