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Going wireless

15th October 2015


Jonathan Wilkins examines the latest trends in wireless machine-to-machine communication, including 6LowPAN

In this day and age it’s almost impossible to find a place in the world without a wireless internet connection. In fact, in 2010, Ncell (a Nepalese Telecommunications company) provided Mount Everest’s peak with 3G data connection – perfect for posting that 8,848 metre high selfie.

The North Pole, the International Space Centre and even the Moon are amongst some of the world’s most surprising Wi-Fi hotspots. While consumer technology is becoming increasingly wire-free can the same be said for industrial automation?

According to a report by market analyst firm Berg Insight the number of installed and active wireless devices within industrial automation reached 10.3 million in 2014. With the estimated annual growth rate at 27.2%, it is expected to reach 43.5 million by 2020.

Constant pressure to make industry more efficient means that manufacturers are using increasingly sophisticated applications for communication such as the industrial internet of things (IIoT) and wireless M2M technology.

M2M describes the technology used to enable industrial automation to connect and exchange information between devices of the same type - without the manual assistance of humans.

In the case of the manufacturing industry, M2M technology can capture data from the production line: such as temperature, inventory level or speed of performance through the use of sensors or meters. This information is relayed through either a wired or wireless network to industrial automation software that can then translate the data into meaningful information for the manufacturer to analyse.

Origins of M2M

The first real use of M2M technology dates back to the 1960s when the predecessor to Caller ID was first invented. During its development, the inventor, Theodore Paraskevakos, quickly realised that in order to recognise the calling number, the telephone must be able to process data. By understanding this, he successfully developed a method in which the caller’s number was transmitted to the called receiver’s device - this was the first introduction of the concepts of intelligence, data processing and visual display in technology.

Wireless connection is the most recent development of M2M technology, this allows companies to gather real-time data from the factory floor and to update and control automation equipment from anywhere in the facility, in temporary locations or even remotely.

Traditionally, M2M technology has used a wired infrastructure. So, why go wireless now?

Consider the oil and gas industry as an example. The industry is typically characterised by its remote and sometimes inaccessible facilities, which makes wireless M2M technology one of the few viable options. Oil and gas operatives can use wireless connectivity to remotely monitor and control the performance of equipment such as tanks, water meters, pumps and valves.

A sea of alternatives

Aside from well-known wireless connectivity options such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular communication, there are several emerging technologies for manufacturers to choose from.

6LoWPAN Technology (IPv6 over low power wireless personal area networks) is the first wireless network specially designed for use within the Internet of Things. As a new technology, 6LoWPAN uses IPv6 (internet protocol version six).

The majority of today’s consumer internet is based on its predecessor IPv4 (internet protocol version four). IPv4 allowed space for around 4.2 billion unique IP addresses, but in 2011 this capacity proved insufficient and IPv4 addresses were exhausted.

In contrast, IPv6 holds space for an incomprehensibly larger number of IP addresses, enough for the internet to grow for decades to come. In a study by Cisco an estimated 50 billion devices will be connected to the IoT by 2020. By using IPv6, 6LoWPAN technology achieves its original aim of enabling even the smallest of devices work within the IoT.

There is no set industry standard for wireless M2M technology, therefore a range of alternatives are available for use across numerous industrial applications. By embracing this technology organisations can benefit from lower power consumption, extended operating range and accurate data collection.  

For industry, this combination of M2M technology and wireless connectivity means that organisations can take full advantage of the M2M revolution. I mean, if we can now get Wifi in space, why shouldn’t we get it in industry?

Jonathan Wilkins of European Automation.









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