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Overcoming Utility Field Challenges to Deploying IoT

The utility industry is one of the most experienced verticals in the Internet of Things (IoT). Various wireless networks have been used for years to monitor equipment and perform automatic meter reading (AMR). It was one of the first industries to experiment with cellular modules and modems, and see in what ways that technology can help them. SCADA networks have been present for decades. It is certainly an industry that understands the challenges of managing assets remotely.

The equipment used is complex, expensive and has a lot of value for the utility in their operations, bringing efficiencies and helping them save costs and provide better services to their customers.

A Case in Point: Electricity Meters

The product that we are all familiar with is the electricity meter. They come in different flavors but generally look the same, all over the world. It’s a product that has not changed much in look, size and shape over the years, be it a residential or commercial meter. The consensus is that if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. However, these meters were not designed for the IoT. We have worked with many meter manufacturers trying to integrate wireless into that same meter product. They remain as those glass-front cylindrically shaped meters with the grey bottom. Inside those remain all the complex electronics with added functionally and demands as electrical consumption has increased. Without any tooling changes, optimal space for wireless electronics to perform optimally does not exist.

This is particularly the case for cellular. The challenge exists in how to get good RF performance inside a meter. It’s a wideband cellular system, operating at different frequencies and now has a requirement for even lower frequencies for 4G LTE. Added to that are the effects of the meter hardware and electronics on the cellular RF and antenna system. Noise and emissions are unavoidable from such a system, and mitigating that noise is also a challenge. In the United States, carriers will perform RF tests that are designed around a smartphone configuration. To not only pass these tests, but ensure the meter works optimally from a RF perspective, is no mean feat. Best-practice RF electronics design and a custom antenna design is usually required to get these products performing optimally if they are using cellular to make it a smart meter. The complexity would definitely slow down any meter vendor when you compare it to a simpler IoT device.

Communicating with these meters in Southern California is easy, they are usually outside and the buildings are not laden with RF-absorbing materials, like they are in European cities, for example. There, it’s common that meters are below the ground and surrounded by thick concrete. This is why even if the carrier in the country that is deploying the meters does not perform RF certification tests, it is still critical that the same design methodology is used. The utility and its customers want the products to still work in fringe areas of the network, or in harsh environments, like a basement in Paris, for example.

There is also a huge variety of grid and distribution equipment that is completely surrounded by thick metal, just like those boxes you see on the city streets, off of sidewalks, and on street corners. These boxes are of varying shapes and sizes depending on the demands of that particular area.

The Role of Devices

Many companies design and sell devices that have huge benefits to the utility. A good example is a device that can predict any potential faults in advance of them happening. These devices can prevent grid outages. They are sensing a change in the power line or grid equipment and simply report that change to the utility. However, these devices are often in those metal green boxes or under the ground itself. In every installation, the device is always surrounded by active, high-power equipment, the type of equipment that if you touch it means not only lights out for some residents, but sever injury or death for the technician. That type of equipment has a huge amount of RF noise emitted from it.

We were invited recently to help a utility customer achieve better and more reliable RF connectivity to these devices. In one installation—possibly one of the harshest environments for RF we’ve seen—the device was installed on a high-power line, surrounded by metal, underneath a very thick concrete lid and under water!

The device was still communicating intermittently. However, the utility needed suggestions on how to improve the RSSI and other levels to the unit. It was shocking that it was working at all, but apart from suggesting the obvious, it is still baffling to understand how the utility can still communicate with the majority of these devices remotely. In this scenario, it was recommended the utility use a different antenna cable, and use a cellular repeater in cabinets that were too deep underground and there simply was no signal present in the first place. The cellular network provider was also there to help the utility customer overcome some challenges they had with IoT connectivity. By partnering with industry experts, it allows us to understand the use case and the unique problems presented by those installations, and therefore, makes it possible to solve problems and allow customers to reap the rewards from these IoT solutions.

That is one of the great things about IoT. It’s working for us when it shouldn’t, without us even knowing it. The environment is harsh, and sometimes it takes a village to solve these unique situations, but the result is worth it: Saving utilities millions of dollars all over the world, ensuring fewer outages happen and cutting our energy costs. 

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