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Some of the more successful wireless mesh networking vendors have realized that the road to increased market share simply means picking one or two focused applications and getting them right. In the end, all the end-user really wants is a functioning network of sensors or “nodes” that delivers data in a highly reliable manner. The growth of wireless technology as it applies to intelligent device monitoring and management has been astounding in the last year and a half. Yet, for those of the mesh variety, there are now only a small number that have successfully helped clients deploy reliable, secure and affordable networks.
No Universal Standard
There has been no shortage of media coverage on wireless mesh stories and the amazing strides that have been made with the technology behind it . But what is the potential business value of wireless sensing? And are the technologies and standards yet where they need to be for explosive adoption across all vertical markets?
The answer to the first question is “impressive”. Harbor’s new M2M/Pervasive Internet market forecast projects rapid growth in WPAN devices from 2008, with new service opportunities riding on the back of these in all eight of our key market venues. The answer to the second question, though, is more patchy. The progress of ZigBee as a standard for the wireless element has been strong. However, in this emerging space there is no one standard that allows all types of devices and sensors for the vast, varying requirements of applications that range from monitoring the climate in a forest to measuring the structural health of a bridge to be interconnected. We believe that there will eventually be a universal standard that brings everything together, but this is still years away – the makeup of these things is just too complex.
As a result, problems with implementation persist – leading to scepticism about longterm viability. Even for the small group of successful vendors, the difficulty has not only been in forging an alliance structure to court the end-user or OEM, but also in targeting the application that is best suited for their particular offering and expertise. The key seems to be finding the right fit.
Two companies who have had success in advancing their mesh network offerings by pursuing focused applications are Eka Systems and Dust Networks, in the energy and industrial sectors respectively.
Focusing on AMR
Eka Systems (www.ekasystems.com) has steadily been going about its business of supplying mesh solutions that work. The company offers solid performance based on low latency, highly scalable networks for energy utilities. Early on, they chose to build a platform focused on automated meter reading (AMR). This has turned out to be an ideal way to develop Eka’s brand of mesh networking because, unlike many other applications, it offers both a wide range of scale and complexity. Mesh networks that cover a city-wide deployment are possible. Eka’s networks of more than 700 nodes/gateway have been operating for over 2 years in metering applications. Projects can run the gamut from once a month meter readings to 15-minute intervals. Eka stuck with AMR through its technology development phase, while recently branching into substation and distribution automation applications.
Today, many large investor-owned utilities have released RFP’s for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). These advanced technologies must combine not only traditionally advanced automated meter reading features such as interval data, remote disconnect and on-demand reads, but they must also incorporate new requirements to read gas and water meters on the same network, as well as penetrate in-building from the meter for load curtailment, energy management and various other potential services that can be offered in the future.
Bringing together such an advanced infrastructure at the scale many utilities are contemplating is challenging and goes beyond the communications technology employed for two-way communications to meters and other devices. While many types of mesh networks are possible, only scalable and well designed ones will yield the full benefits of AMI and be cost effective over a 10-15 year deployment.
Complete self-configuration with no management or overhead is absolutely essential over the life of the system. The management problems for a citywide deployment of meters can be extensive and lead to extreme complexity. There are also other issues to be concerned with. What will happen in large installations when networks from different gateways merge together? Do nodes intelligently decide which gateway to go to? If there is a failure in one gateway can they switch over to another without human intervention? In large-scale systems all these failures can have serious effects on the network. How is data integrity preserved when failures occur? Is the data lost? Is there a near real time performance on large-scale networks to provide adequate functionality for AMI requirements? How fast does the network converge in case of an outage?
Mesh networks have the ability to provide unprecedented benefits and value through networking of meters and other devices tied to energy. However, by their very nature the inner workings are complex. This complexity is in fact essential to provide the user the ability to deploy sophisticated applications and services. A good network deployment always brings unforeseen benefits. Eka’s success lies in the fact that the company provides networking that addresses and solves the problem of scale and complexity. In addition, while they believe in standards based technology – their experience based on multiple scale deployments is that the standards based solutions as they exist today are don’t come close to dealing with real application issues of scale and complexity. The company plans to be heavily involved with the standards bodies in the future.
Focusing on Industrial
Dust Networks’ (www.dust-inc.com) success story can be explained by 3 magic numbers. The first and most important is 99.9%. Dust’s SmartMesh systems deliver at least 99.9% end-to-end data reliability in real-world industrial environments. The second, 100x lower the power consumption. This is another captivating number that broadens the possibilities to include devices in remote or undesirable places that require monitoring and maintenance. When a node can function for years on end, battery longevity often dictates the breakeven analysis. The third, 97% reduction in installation time. When a health clinic in Chicago put out a bid for a wired network, the bar was set at 4 weeks. A Dust mesh network was installed in 2 hours with no specialized RF skills or site surveys necessary.
Over the past six months Dust has seen a huge increase in wireless mesh activity in industrial applications. End-users have been applying pressure on OEM’s to build mesh technology into their devices and systems. The value proposition is now simply too large for them to ignore. Emerson is one of several device manufacturers employing Dust’s new “ruggedized” XT version of its Smart Mesh package. SmartMesh-XT is optimized for enterprise-class applications in industrial and building settings, and meets the tough specifications for harsh environments found in oil refineries, food processing plants, wastewater facilities, pharmaceutical plants, power plants, and other locations. Features include a rugged design for Class I Division 1 environments, vibration resistance, and an industrial temperature range of -40 to +85°C.
Dust’s proprietary Time Sychronized Mesh Protocol (TSMP), is a networking protocol that delivers high reliability and low power consumption designed to ride on top of standard, off-the-shelf radio chips. SmartMesh-XT products achieve >99.9% reliability in the face of harsh RF environments, and battery-operated motes typically live for more than 5-10 years. The key components of TSMP include frequency hopping, time sychronization, full-mesh routing, self-healing, self-organizing and security.
After contemplating long and hard on where to take their technology, Dust has settled comfortably in the industrial space. As is well known, much M2M technology is vetted in harsh industrial applications and then trickles down to other application areas. Dust is applying this trickle down theory to its evolving strategy. The company is using its proven strength in industrial applications and redefining itself as a supplier of underlying technology to leading OEMs across many vertical markets. There is enough overlap in verticals that things are beginning to pop. Dust is banking on expanding its success in the industrial space to other segments. Their intent is to provide their platform to the widest swath they can across Industrial, Buildings, Security/Defense and Commercial markets – certainly more of a horizontal approach.
One step at a time
Both Dust Networks and Eka Systems exemplify mesh networking players who have specialised first to get to grips with the complexity inherent in many M2M applications. The key lesson is that one sure step at a time wins.
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