From Assets to Analytics: Supplementing SCADA Systems with Cloud-Based Remote Monitoring Platforms

| 4/29/2014 12:59:40 PM

Every industrial network is work in progress.  As new tools and new capabilities become available, many of us find ourselves blending traditional technologies with newer ones, adding new device category layers rather than abandoning valuable equipment that is still quite capable of performing useful tasks. The goal is to get the most out of all systems.

Figure 1: Reporting to an HMI
Figure 1: Reporting to an HMI

Traditional networking devices often reported to an onsite HMI of some sort.  (Fig. 1) But with the development of new options like cellular data networking and Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms that reside in the cloud, there’s no reason that traditional devices like Modbus-based devices like sensors can’t work in tandem with newer systems and newer technologies, becoming useful nodes on global networks that provide remote management, control and analytic functions anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

At the local level, advances in wireless technologies like Wi-Fi, 802.15.4e and low energy Bluetooth (Bluetooth LE) are making it possible to create new network topologies and new connections in locations that were formerly impractical or even inaccessible to more traditional tech. In locations that lack easy access to AC power, for example, network designers might now choose to deploy battery-powered wireless sensors that communicate via 802.15.4e mesh networks.  (Fig. 2) Rather than relying upon direct connections to an Ethernet gateway, the nodes in the mesh network cooperate in the distribution of data across the network. Messages can hop from node to node until a viable path to the destination is found. If a path is broken or blocked, the mesh network will use self-healing algorithms to find an alternative path to the gateway. This technique can be used to supplement and extend an existing SCADA-to-the-cloud installation, as the same gateway can be used to provide connectivity for alternate wireless technologies as well as wired devices.

Figure 2: Extending the network edge with wireless mesh networking

Figure 2: Extending the network edge with
wireless mesh networking

But the real magic is happening up in the cloud.  When you can aggregate data from multiple generations of technology, move it all up to the cloud, and combine it with third party inputs, you’re presented with an opportunity to use your data in unprecedented ways.

Think about the irrigation systems you see when you travel.  Most still rely upon simple timers; assuming that they’re sophisticated enough to include any automation at all.  As a result, the United States Geological Survey estimates that half of all irrigation water is simply wasted, thanks to runoff and evaporation.  An intelligent system that monitors actual soil conditions to determine where, when, and how much water actually needs to be released can cut those losses dramatically.  But a system that connects to the cloud can do even better.  The most advanced irrigation systems now use cloud applications to combine data from local sensors with third party data like weather forecasts to make intelligent decisions, like holding back a planned release for a few hours when rain is predicted, and then measuring how much rain has actually fallen.

Placing more intelligence in your Ethernet gateway effectively increases the intelligence of your legacy SCADA infrastructure. For example, a simple Modbus pressure indicator may be designed to report its data continuously, even when conditions are within acceptable ranges.  If you were transmitting that data via the cellular networks this continuous reporting would be an unnecessary expense, or an inefficient use of the data plan, as there is no purpose in transmitting data that has no value. Where incoming data has high sampling rates, a smart gateway can be programmed to compare incoming data with specified parameters, and to decide when information is important enough to be reported to the cloud application.  That eliminates the need to locate more intelligence in the associated sensors, allowing existing equipment to remain in place and continue functioning as it always has.

Cloud platforms like SeeControl’s M2M SaaS remote monitoring platform also add value and new capabilities to your traditional SCADA equipment.  When you move your SCADA data up to the cloud platforms, rather than an HMI, you can put it to work in real time.  You can specify your custom key performance indicators (KPIs), compare KPIs from multiple sites, integrate third party data, manage multiple sites from a single platform, spot trends, identify potential problem patterns that require attention and make more efficient business decisions.

On the local level, no single data communications technology is yet the best, or the most cost effective, for every purpose. But they have this in common: they all have the potential to become more valuable when you connect them to the cloud.

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