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Combining disparate protocols for industrial IoT

30 Sep 2014  | Mike Fahrion

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Editor's Note: The Internet of Things tend to concentrate on consumer products, including wearable technologies and smart appliances. Things, however, are different in the industrial world. Mike Fahrion, director of product management at B&B Electronics, writes what the industrial sector can do as it eases into IoT.

In the consumer world, the focus is on the human experience and human interactions with machines. But the industrial Internet of Things will have different goals. Rather than creating new human experiences, it will focus on making machines more autonomous, increasing efficiency and productivity by reducing or even eliminating the need for human supervision.

You could call the Internet of Things a new device category layer that will link the formerly non-connected world with the connected world of PCs, tablets and smartphones. For consumers, that will often mean replacing older equipment with newer, smarter devices. But replacing existing equipment won't be as easy in the industrial world. Much of the infrastructure that is currently in place is far too valuable and far too complex to be discarded.

Rather than eliminating our existing M2M data networks and connected devices, the industrial Internet of Things will coexist with them for a long time. It will incorporate the older technologies, provide them with dramatic new capabilities, and increase their value.

To do this, industrial Internet of Things technology will need to accommodate disparate technologies, some of which are decades old. It will have to aggregate, convert and transmit multiple data networking protocols, from Modbus to TCP/IP.

It will need to move data across fibre, copper, cellular and wireless connections. While adding smaller, smarter, more capable nodes to networks, the Industrial Internet of Things will also have to keep older equipment connected.

The Internet of Things will include the Internet of the past

This isn't a complete break with the past. No single technology has ever been the best for every application, so industrial networks have always needed to connect multiple protocols and devices. Manufacturers have responded by developing a wide variety of protocol converters, making it easy to connect anything from Modbus to fibre.

But as the Internet of Things unfolds, protocol conversion will become more complex. More and more devices will be wireless. As was the case with wired connections, no single wireless technology is yet the best for every application. Cellular data networking, for example, can provide virtually infinite range, and the build-out of the 4G LTE networks will give it low latency and bandwidth that rivals fibre.

But cellular data networking also uses data plans, which can make it less attractive when wireless data only needs to travel short distances, especially if that data is of low value. Wi-Fi, of course, requires no data plans.

But even if connections are line of sight, its maximum range can be measured in kilometers. Low energy Bluetooth (Bluetooth LE) will be an important connection option for tablets and smartphones, but Bluetooth LE has even less range than Wi-Fi. Every wireless option has its own advantages.

Early adoption of the Internet of Things

The ability to connect disparate data protocols will remain as important as ever, but the sheer numbers of connected devices is expected to explode. Simple protocol converters will continue to be very important, but the industrial Internet of Things will also call for single-box solutions that can aggregate multiple data streams and multiple protocols and move all of that data up to the cloud.

These devices will require robust security, as wireless connections are inherently more vulnerable. And they'll need to be robust, resilient and increasingly autonomous, as they'll be tasked to function in increasingly remote locations and increasingly harsh environments.

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