A field trip this week to a pilot distillation facility on the University of Texas campus gave me new perspective on the challenges of delivering wireless in outdoor, industrial settings.
Peter Zornio, chief technology officer with Emerson Automation Solutions, gave me several examples of how wireless could go wrong in these locales. The most obvious challenge is the preponderance of metal in these environments. Wireless signals can’t go through metal, so mesh networks become critical.
Another challenge is the movement of vehicles such as trucks or trains that can get between wireless sensors and gateways. Zornio shared a story about a plant that had an otherwise perfect network that would randomly go down. After some research, the workers realized that a train pulled up twice a day between the facility and the gateway. Mesh networks fixed that as well.
Chemicals are the other big challenge. In a distillation plant (and in other chemical processes) huge vats are filled with liquids that periodically replenish and deplete. Wireless signals aren’t great when it comes to water, so the changing volumes of liquids around the facilities can change the RF environment.
Any good RF engineer can tell you this, but as more and more companies try to build wireless networks in their own warehouses, or even in their stores, it’s worth a reminder that mesh networks are generally good and the RF environment matters tremendously.