LoRaWAN begins to make its impact on energy and power infrastructure reliability

November 9, 2018 Murat Ocalan, Rheidiant

Crude oil pipelines, power transmission lines, offshore drilling rigs and petrochemical facilities all share the attributes of being essential to our daily lives and being dispersed in remote locations. These assets, key to our interconnected power and energy infrastructure, often lack the desired data connectivity for accurate assessment of their health and reliability.

The promise of LPWAN technologies has been the ubiquitous connectivity of ‘things.’ The recent developments and commercial introductions has been turning this promise into reality.

The lack of connectivity of the energy and power assets has not been caused by technological challenges. In contrast, consumer electronic devices are continuously connected under almost all the locations their users need. A hazardous gas pipeline on the other hand may be connected in point locations that are separated by tens, if not hundreds, of miles.

The connectivity challenge has been the cost – in terms of both initial cost and operational cost. While a cellular connection provides a wireless method of getting data across long distances, powering these devices over a typical duration of industrial installations require a wired or a dedicated power source. This results in a higher cost installation and negates the benefits of wireless data. The ongoing cost of cellular connectivity can also impact the commercial viability of some industrial applications.

It is therefore essential to deploy technologies that can handle the long-range data transmission with low power requirements. This combination has been the technological enabler LoRaWAN, a new LPWAN standard, has been able to provide. Using this technology it is possible to deploy battery-powered field devices in the range over 10 miles from a field gateway [1].

The power and range benefits of LoRaWAN is mainly due to the chirp spread spectrum physical layer called LoRa (the similarities in the names can be a source of confusion for people familiarizing themselves with the technology). In terms of the OSI Model [2] LoRa is a Level 1, physical layer protocol. Whereas LoRaWAN covers mostly the data link (level 2) and network (level 2) layers. This also means levels 4 thru 7, transport, session, presentation, and applications layers are left for specific technology providers.

Deployments of the technology often utilize one of two architectures differentiated by the location of the network server – the process handling essential network functions such as key exchange and message encryption/decryption. In small networks with a single or few field gateways, it is often architecturally more straightforward to deploy the network server on these devices. In larger networks, the common choice is to deploy a network server in backend hardware, often in the cloud. This streamlines the device management functionality and allows each device to connect to the network through any of the field gateways. As an example, the MultiConnect Conduit IP67 gateway manufactured be Multi-tech Systems, Inc. ships with two software modules called the network server and packet forwarder. These modules can deploy a LoRaWAN network when used together. Alternatively the packet forwarder module can be utilized with a server process deployed on a cloud provider, allowing for multiple gateway devices to be managed centrally in the cloud.

Many energy and power assets are set to gain significantly from the range and power benefits of LoRaWAN. The range of the technology places assets like large refineries, LNG supertankers  or even whole oilfields within a reach of a single gateway. This results in a significantly simplified data and control backbone, allowing operators to connect sensors and systems in a cost effective manner.

For example, one of the challenges in monitoring of pipelines is the sparsity of the measurement locations. While very accurate pressure, temperature or flow sensors can be utilized in these measurement stations, the distance between the sensors, and thus the amount of fluid product in between the measurements, create a large amount of uncertainty that reduces measurement accuracy. In today’s typical leak detection systems, a leak of tens of gallons per minute of fluid can be escaping the pipeline without being detected. Left undetected, these leaks can lead to catastrophic spills. With a communication channel like LoRaWAN, it is possible to dramatically increase the number of sensors on a pipeline asset in a cost effective manner to better monitor for integrity breaches.

Other commercial applications of LoRaWAN deployments are also being rapidly developed in upstream monitoring and optimization, asset health monitoring and smart grid applications.

The power and range benefits of LPWAN technologies offer a promising alternative to asset operators to connect their field systems. The resulting communication architecture with significantly different cost structure allows for dense deployments of connected ‘things’ and allowing the operators to draw benefits of the vastly improved visibility and understanding of their systems.

LoRa and LoRaWAN are trademarks of Semtech Corporation. MultiConnect and Conduit are trademarks of Multi-Tech Systems Inc.

[1] Petajajarvi, J., Mikhaylov, K., Roivainen, A., Hanninen, T. and Pettissalo, M., 2015, December. On the coverage of LPWANs: range evaluation and channel attenuation model for LoRa technology. In ITS Telecommunications (ITST), 2015 14th International Conference on (pp. 55-59). IEEE.

[2] ISO/IEC 7498-1: 1994 information technology–open systems interconnection–basic reference model: The basic model.

Murat Ocalan is the founder and CEO of Rheidiant, an Industrial Internet of Things solutions provider for energy and power companies. Prior to Rheidiant, he spent 12 years at Schlumberger. He is a named inventor in over 20 U.S. patents and holds a B.S. from Middle East Technical University, M.S. from Pennsylvania State University, and a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all in Mechanical Engineering.

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