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Senior Editor

Bluetooth gets greasy and gritty

Jul 28, 20036 mins
BluetoothCellular NetworksNetwork Security

With little fanfare, Bluetooth is gaining acceptance in many industrial gritty, greasy and loud applications that are a far cry from cell phones and headsets.

This is the future of coolness in wireless: a Bluetooth radio housed in a dirt-tight metal brick that’s the size of a paperback book, weighs over a half-pound, and has a GUI that consists of three LEDs.

It’s cool because you can hang the brick on a conveyor belt, rotating kiln, water pump or crane and transmit temperature, vibration and other data up to 300 feet without the time, trouble and cost of running wires.

Welcome to industrial Bluetooth.

With little fanfare, Bluetooth is gaining acceptance in many gritty, greasy and loud applications that are a far cry from cell phones and headsets. For example:

  • A steel company saved $10,000 using Bluetooth instead of cabling to connect a new set of sensors to the control room of one plant.

  • A cement manufacturer uses Bluetooth to simplify installing, and to maintain temperature and moisture sensors on huge rotating kilns.

  • The city of Oslo, Norway uses Bluetooth to monitor the status of heavy equipment at 179 water pumping stations.

  • A metals fabricator saved weeks and tens of thousands of dollars in rewiring costs by using electronic sensors and Bluetooth to track pours of molten metal into industrial molds.

A 2002 study by research firm Venture Development predicts that overall product shipments for all types of wireless monitoring and control gear in manufacturing will increase from about $109 million in 2001 to about $752 million in 2006, growing at a compound annual rate of about 47%.

A study this year by In-Stat/MDR concludes that Bluetooth product shipments in vertical markets such as manufacturing, utilities, transportation, mining and healthcare will jump from almost nothing this year to nearly 2.5 million in 2007. In-Stat analyst Joyce Putscher says manufacturing and healthcare will be the most active segments.

Unwiring these kinds of products yields some dramatic benefits for industrial operations.

“Eliminating cables is a huge part of this picture,” says Sandy Harper, senior research and development project engineer for Parker Hannifin, an industrial controls company based in Cleveland. “There is a lot of wear and tear on cables in harsh environments or in robotics or other applications where machinery is constantly moving.”

A $5 to $10 Bluetooth chip embedded in a sensor or programmable logic controller can eliminate not only that ongoing maintenance burden but also the costs of laying cable. William Drake, manager of wireless technology for Wilcoxon Research says one oil company client estimated that putting new cable into existing aluminum conduit in a refinery cost $25 per foot; if you had to put in new conduit as well, the cost shot up to $100 per foot.

One of the surprises for users is realizing the current range of the Bluetooth chips. “When we go to automation conferences, two out of every three questions we get are, ‘I thought Bluetooth was only good for [33 feet],’ ” Drake says. “We built a Bluetooth Class 1 [328 feet] radio for sensor applications.” A reach of 300 feet gives Bluetooth flexibility in connecting industrial sensors and controls with existing manufacturing networks.

Another attraction is the robust 128-bit encryption scheme in the Bluetooth specification that protects data transmissions from malicious interference.

Bluetooth’s adaptive frequency hopping lets a Bluetooth 2.4-GHz radio sidestep channels occupied by other radios or by electromagnetic emissions.

In most of these applications, it is not a problem that Bluetooth’s bandwidth peaks at 1M bit/sec. Sensors and similar devices typically send and receive small chunks of data, and Bluetooth’s pipe is more than enough.

Despite these strengths, the new industrial automation working group in the Bluetooth Special Interest Group is fine-tuning Bluetooth for industrial uses.

Additions will be made to existing Bluetooth profiles. The profiles describe how to use Bluetooth for specific tasks, such as printing and serial communications. The new working group, chaired by Wilcoxon’s Drake, will create, in effect, a supplement to some of these profiles. For example, serial communications for industrial use might include some specific protocols. Another supplement would specify a wider range of environment temperatures to address the harsher conditions often found in industrial environments.

Drake says he hopes to present a preliminary draft and a test procedure for certification at the Bluetooth Developers Conference in December.

All this activity is having an effect on users.

A recent survey of buyers of data acquisition gear in various industries found a high level of awareness of Bluetooth, says James Taylor, group manager for industrial automation at Venture Development. “A year ago, we did not find a heck of a lot of interest in Bluetooth,” he says. “In this study, we found 4% currently using Bluetooth in data acquisition. But looking out five years, 21% said they were likely to be using Bluetooth.” Among OEM companies serving the medical/healthcare market, that number was 40%.

The awareness is being fueled by a growing product portfolio from an increasing number of vendors, including ABB Group, BlueGiga Technologies, ConnectBlue, Parker Hannifin and Wilcoxon.

Wilcoxon released its BlueLynx wireless sensor link in January that is targeted at process-control applications using a 4- to 20-milliampere signal. The device can monitor vibration, pressure, temperature or flow sensors, or any combination of these. In April, Frost & Sullivan gave the BlueLynx a 2003 product of the year award for industrial technology.

Socket Communications and Isochron Data recently released the first in a series of Bluetooth products to let PocketPC handheld devices manage industrial equipment. The first product, VendCast Mobile, links the handheld with controllers in vending machines.

Parker Hannifin is expected to soon release an array of Bluetooth products it has been demonstrating at trade shows. One demonstration includes several pneumatic, electromechanical and hydraulic devices controlled by a new Bluetooth “valve island” that wirelessly sends control signals to the various devices.

Other wireless technologies will have their place with Bluetooth or even compete with it. In May, the IEEE began crafting Zigbee, the draft specification of 802.15.4, aimed at creating an even lower-power, shorter-range, wireless technology. And Ericsson Technology Licensing reportedly is considering developing a more-lightweight derivative of Bluetooth in response.

Senior Editor

I cover wireless networking and mobile computing, especially for the enterprise; topics include (and these are specific to wireless/mobile): security, network management, mobile device management, smartphones and tablets, mobile operating systems (iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry OS and BlackBerry 10), BYOD (bring your own device), Wi-Fi and wireless LANs (WLANs), mobile carrier services for enterprise/business customers, mobile applications including software development and HTML 5, mobile browsers, etc; primary beat companies are Apple, Microsoft for Windows Phone and tablet/mobile Windows 8, and RIM. Preferred contact mode: email.

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