Talking sensor technology trials

Paul Boughton

The chemical industry could be the first to benefit from a European project that is taking existing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems up to the next level.

Funded by Information Society Technologies (IST)the Collaborative Business Items (CoBIs) project aims to shift a substantial part of business processes from resource-intensive back-end systems to systems embedded in the products themselves.

With sensorswireless communication and computing components attachedthe goods or equipment become smart. This meansfor examplethat chemical drums will warn operators when the storage limit in a warehouse is reachedif a leak occurs or if one is placed in the wrong location.

“What we are doing is making sensor network technology useful to businesses by creating a system that responds to the need for real-time information. It allows goods to act and react automatically to changes at the local leveland warn operators of the change” CoBIs coordinator Stephan Haller at SAP Research in Germany explains.


Though CoBIs has a potentially limitless number of usage scenariosthe project is concentrating on employing them in the petrochemical industrywhich is likely to be an early adopter of the technology.

The system will be tested at a BP plant in Hull in the UK later this year where the sensor nodes will be attached to barrels of chemicals and used to monitor compliance with safety regulations on the storage of hazardous materials.

If all goes wellHaller estimates that the full system – including middleware components and an application development environment – could be adopted commercially in the industry within three to five years.

In the chemical sectorwhere even the slightest mistake in managing an inventory of volatile materials could mean disasterthat will undoubtedly lead to increased safety.

Embedded sensing

Unlike most RFID systems – an emerging technology in its own right – that mainly work passively to distinguish between tagged objects with their own unique identifierCoBIs-enabled objects work actively by incorporating embedded sensingcomputing and wireless short-range communication.

They can monitor the state and environmental conditions of the goods they are attached tocommunicate peer-to-peer and collaborate to observe conditions that no single sensor would be able to detectand they can feed the information into back-end systems automatically within the project’s service-oriented architecture.

In the usage scenario for BPthis will not only provide automatic inventory tracking of chemical drums but will set off visual and audio alarms embedded in the sensors and in the storage facility if too many drums are stored together or incorrectly.

The sensors could also be used to monitor the environmental conditions chemicals are subjected to during transportation or storageallowing companies
to detect a shipment that may have lost its properties and discard it rather than inadvertently – and potentially dangerously – using it in a later production process.
The same sensor network technology could be applied in other sectorssuch as foodpharmaceuticals and healthcarewhere monitoring the condition of a product is crucial.

There is also the possibility to use CoBIs to create smart clothing that could be used to protect workers in hazardous environments.

“One idea is that sensors embedded in a suit could be used to check whether a person meets certain conditions to access an area of a factory where a gas leak has occurredfor example” said Haller.

Clothing and equipment

Haller: continued: “The sensors nodes would communicate with other nodes in the building and in other people’s clothing and equipment to determine access rights to ensure safety regulations are complied with.

“Only if all required workers with the correct training certificatesand all necessary safety and maintenance equipment are presentwould the door open for them.”

Perhaps most importantly for businessesthe CoBIs sensor network is designed to be easy to deployhighly scalable to meet the needs of different companies and industriesand cost effective.

The Information Society Technologies aims to help realise European policies designed to promote the ‘knowledge economy’ in industrythe public sector and society to achieve growthwith more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.

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