PLC, Wireless Communications Hold the Keys to the IIoT

Zeev Collin, CEO
Semitech Semiconductor

Amidst all the buzz surrounding the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and how it is set to revolutionize industrial automation, an important question often gets overlooked: How, exactly, are these various machines and devices going to connect to and communicate with one another? Ubiquity and interoperability are crucial factors that can be deal breakers when dealing with different architectures and protocols.

Moving to heterogeneous networks that combine the two most prevalent “no-new-wires” means of communications available to IIoT – power line communications (PLC) and low-power wireless communications – addresses both issues. Reliable, uniform wireless and PLC connectivity for the M2M market is somewhat of a new concept – one that needs to be extensively addressed. Standardizing around a single no-new-wires solution is the next logical evolutionary step.

Feb_M2M word cloudWhat Better Time Than the Present?
Historically,certain applications have gravitated to wireless, while others have naturally moved toward power line. It could be that an application is better suited for one versus the other, or perhaps the geography is better suited for one over the other. Politics have also been known to come into play here. Whatever the reason, as the industrial, smart energy and similar markets mature, they are heading toward heterogeneous networks. On a case-by-case basis a choice is made regarding what is needed to get data from one place to another from one machine to another via mesh or directly to a gateway and then into the cloud in the most reliable way. The medium doesn’t matter as long as there is no expectation of installing special infrastructure or any new wires like Ethernet or Fibre Channel. Data needs to come through regardless of the medium.

What if You Didn’t Have to Really Think That Hard About this Process?
Narrowband-PLC (N-PLC) and low-power wireless are two natural no-new-wires technologies that complement each other in addressing the Industrial IoT. Together, they form a single solution that addresses all the requirements of the IIoT, despite the fragmentation created by different media (power line and wireless), different standards within each medium, different geography dependent-conditions and application specific needs without imposing significant cost or power consumption penalties.

Wireless has come a long way over the past couple decades. It is amazing to think about it 18 years ago Wi-Fi didn’t exist and now its a ubiquitous technology. The lessons learned during the extensive research and development that went into broadband wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi and cellular, are now being applied in numerous other areas, including power line communications and narrowband (low power) wireless communications. Low-power wireless technologies find their way into smart metering, sensory mesh networks and other industrial applications.

N-PLC has been around for many years, but only with the recent advancements in technology, increasing needs in M2M connectivity and increasing awareness for better resource management, is it gaining the attention that it deserves as the most ubiquitous network medium available. Today, N-PLC is most prevalently used to connect consumers to utilities for automatic meter reading (AMR) and load control on the smart grid. Other rapidly emerging applications include street light control (SLC) and, to a lesser extent, smart appliances. In addition, N-PLC is finding its way into a wide range of applications involving electrically connected devices requiring monitoring and control, such as vending machines, solar panels, electrical vehicle charging and other data gathering and control systems.

An architecture that is sufficiently programmable and capable of advanced communication techniques across different media, geographies and applications, yet cost and power efficient, is required for heterogeneous networks to become a reality. A truly universal IIoT solution that can simultaneously communicate wirelessly and over power lines will enable true no-new-wires heterogeneous networks for the one solution fits all answer that the IIoT desperately needs.

A note of caution: aggressive cost and power budgets must be taken into consideration when looking to remove complexities from the IIoT. A universal platform for the IIot needs to not only be affordable to implement across the board, but must consume as little power as possible.

With analysts predicting that the IIoT market will reach $123.89 billion by 2021, the issue of interoperability needs to be addressed. Advancements in wireless and N-PLC technologies point to the fact that the time is right for the full, interconnected potential of the IIoT to be realized.

For more information visit www.semitechsemi.com.

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