Telemetry tips

28 April 2006

Telemetry is the field of expertise for Dave Oakes, Sales Director of Powelectrics, and below he has put together advice to help you get what you want from your remote monitoring solution.


The latest developments in mobile communications prove that immediate response, from anywhere, is now a real possibility. Whether you’re on the other side of your plant or on the other side of the world, advances in cable-free communication mean that you can acquire data and, vitally, act on your findings within minutes. Telemetry solutions are fast becoming affordable, reliable and practical and web based data acquisition and alarm handling solutions are proving their worth within industry

Recent world events such as the London bombings have brought the security threat to the forefront of all our minds, and ongoing fuel price increases (in the UK we have seen an increase of 28% since we were setting of fireworks and bringing in the new millennium) are increasing the need for remote monitoring solutions. The average journey time has increased by 16% in the 4 years to 2002. Living where I do on an overpopulated island where the primary mode of transport is by road, and where our customers are all demanding lower costs and improved levels of service the need is further enhanced. The million dollar question is how do you reduce your costs and improve the level of service while the main cost associated to many businesses is so far ahead of inflation ? How do you improve the level of service when it takes you 16% longer to get from A to B ?

Telemetry(or Remote Monitoring, or M2M, or Telematics, or Machine2Man, Man2Machine, Machine2Machine... ) can be used for too many applications to mention here, but vehicle and mobile asset tracking, storage tank level monitoring, remote meter reading, pump condition monitoring, vending machine monitoring all have one thing in common and that is reducing costs. The technology is now sufficiently proven, the mobile network operators have now embraced the solution and the cost of the solutions have fallen dramatically over the years opening most if not all of these applications.

Using telemetry can seriously help your business - know where things are, how things are, be the first to react to a potential problem, know what has caused the problem before you set off on a long journey, get more from your operatives and your assets. Implementing telemetry solutions can help your business in many different ways but it's only any good if it works. You don't want to have spend more time on your telemetry than you did on the problems it helped solve. The key requirements for success are reliability, affordability and the upgradeability and this requires an understanding of the complete solution.

The first thing to do is identify the parameters to be monitored and how best to monitor them. The sensors or probes need to be reliable, pretty much maintenance free and well proven. The accuracy, the price, the means of installation all need to suit the environment and purpose for which they are intended. Thought also needs to be given as to how the sensors are to be powered and how they will interface to the telemetry device (or remote telemetry unit - RTU).

You then need to consider what you want from your RTU - do you want it to log data? If so how much? How often? Do you want the unit to log intelligently and change the sample rate to suit the conditions. For example, if are monitoring bearing temperature then there is little point storing lots of data when the conveyor belt isn't running. Too much data can be a bad thing as well as being costly to transfer and store.

Do you need alarms? If so how do you want to receive them? To your mobile phone? To your email address? To a piece of dedicated software running on a pc somewhere? You can have too many alarms so it's a good idea to select an RTU that has a certain amount of intelligence and can send alarms if certain conditions occur or if the alarm is active for a preset period of time.

How are you going to communicate? The GSM network is proving to be the quickest and most cost effective means of tansferring your data and alarms. OK, there will be places where there isn't a signal but that pretty rare these days. It gives you independence and control - no need to reconfigure the telemetry system if the network at the site gets modified. No cable faults. Reduced risk of lightning strikes in very remote locations. With the GSM network you can a number of ways to transfer your data as well - GPRS, Data call as well as SMS and the more sophisticated devices will use all three of these depending on availability with the network. You then need to consider who is going to look after the air time and the sim cards.

Who is going to store your data? If you are going to handle it in house are your I.T department OK with it? Web based data presentation (or internet telemetry) is rising in popularity as the communications links, the backup, the system upgrades, pretty much everything is handled by others. You pay a flat fee for the data and roll this in with the airtime. Telemetry system integrators do this for a living, they know how to manage the data, the pitfalls in communication links and how to work with the cellular operators. They already manage these systems for others and all you'll be doing is jumping on the back of the infrastructure.

The point I'm trying to make is that M2M solution providers are the key to success and taking an end to end approach is the best. Solution providers will understand the application, they will understand your needs and they will understand the technology. I don't just say this cause I work for an end to end solution provider ( but because I've lived through the problems, I've lost business because of if it and know for a fact it not only saves you time but also money.

When implementing remote monitoring go wireless. We are all used to cable. It make us comfortable. We understand what's going on. We trust it. But why..? Rats chew it, farmers put fence posts through them, utilities dig them to monitor something on someone elses site you are reliant upon interaction from the client and the use of their exchange.

Powelectrics have been providing data communication solutions for many years and have seen the advances in wireless based telemetry at first hand. In the UK these tend to be UHF systems operating around the 400-500Mhz band using set-aside delicensed frequencies. The utilities have pioneered the conversion to radio after successive privatisation has lead to staffing reductions, which inevitably has left many sites unmanned. The water boards in particular have many sites which are too remote to use a telephone network effectively so the best solution has been to employ radio equipment to monitor process signals and relay values to central controls sites. Increased use has lead to increased confidence and many radio installations now offer real-time control facilities.

Engineers are now starting to embrace the freedom that radio systems can bring. Confidence has grown to the extent that engineers now rely on radio communications to monitor effluent systems on pharmaceutical plants and offshore installations. These systems work by converting process values, or serial data, into radio signals. Crucially however, to qualify for de-licensed frequencies the power output of each radio has to remain low, which means that ‘low-power’ radio has an effective range of approximately 20km. For local control systems this method of data acquisition offers many advantages but it is now possible to ‘buy’ your own frequency and transmit over greater distances, but the boundary for process monitoring applications is still fixed at about 60km.

If you need to acquire data and control equipment from further afield a wireless solution is already available. With its link to the GSM network, the mobile telephone is increasingly acquiring the functionality of a PC. This provides access to, and control of, data without the necessity of landline connectivity. With web-browsing capability offered by GPRS technology, the wireless route is starting to dominate.

Whether data is crossing a road, crossing a chemical plant or crossing the Atlantic wireless is proving it's worth. As ever they key is appreciating the limitations, understanding the application and the technology and making sure you will get what you want. There is no substitute for experience.

Further flexibilty is coming about with new techniques with cell based short ranged radio - data can hop from one node to another in a framework, a bit like data can get passed from one server to another on the internet. Range becomes unrestricted and by combining technologies you can achieve amazing results.

Reliability is the key to affordability. The same can be said for so many different areas of business, but it really does ring true for remote monitoring. The sites are remote. It's going to take someone a long time to get there to fix it and that could be pretty expensive. You lose the whole point of remote monitoring if it isn't going to work when you need it to. OK, if you roll out nits in the hundreds and thousands you can exect the odd hiccup, and in the early days there will be a learning curve when it goes horribly wrong.

Use kit that's proven, work with a company that understands your needs, that understands the technology and has been though it all before. There are allsorts of phrases used to describe suppliers, a few of which I can't bring myself to type, but the ones that integrate the solution, that can supply the sensors as well as the telemetry device and that have the capability to help you out on site are the ones I'd recommend. They don't have to be a household name, in fact the companies that understand telemetry are rarely household names.

It's not just hardware reliability that matters. If you're using the mobile phone network you'll need to make sure the signal is good for sure, but you'll also need to make sure the sim card is the right type and allsorts of other stuff. Pay as you go has it's place and is all well and good for certain applications but consider what needs to be done to top it up? What happens if Mr Network changes the rules? Do you have to send so many messages every day/week/month..? Save yourself the bother and use the equipment supplier to take the responsibility and give you an end to end solution for your M2M application.

It's not just the affordability that affected by reliability, but also the credability For remote monitoring and telemetry to work people need to have confidence, and that means the system needs to work.

Telemetry is becoming more and more affordable and more and more reliable, opening up many new applications that just 2 or 3 years ago would have seemed impossible. I've been doing allsorts of cost benefit analysis on some applications recently and for VMI and tank level monitoring we are finding that the kit pays for itself inside 4 months. This is only going to get quicker as the costs involved with transportation increase and with the lifetime of the telemetry device well in excess of 5 years the return on investment is beyond comprehension. It’s a no brainer to many organisations, especailly now the risks are so low and the technology so well proven…... At least it is if you use a suitable m2m solution provider.

Telemetry benefits the supply chain. It's all well and good me sitting here writing about the wonders of telemetry, telling you to go wireless and web enabled, saying that you should find an end to end solution provider etc etc.., but what benefits does it actually give to your business and to your customers business. Let's take an example of tank level monitoring and distributing product in tankers around the country or continent filling up tanks. How much does it cost for each delivery and how much is delivered at each drop..? If the amount delivered can be increased then you need fewer visits to the tank to fill it up and therefore you reduce your logisitics costs. The savings depend on a range of factors but typically an increase in delivery of just 6% ensures that the telemetry pays for itself.

As transportation costs go up then the savings provided by remote tank level monitoring go up and the benefits increase further still. In most situations the decision as to whether or not telemetry will pay for itself is not difficult, but it doesn't end there.

Are you facing increased competition and reduced margins..? Does your sales team need that little bit extra to offer to the client in order to secure their business and if you could do that would you be able to tie the customer into a longer contract term…? In return your customer gets more efficient deliveries (they normally have to provide access etc..), as well as increased confidence knowing that they will never run out of product. Your customer becomes a mere bystander, you are reactive to situations that the telemetry is telling you about and everyone works better, sleeps better and saves money and the telemetry does all the hard work. You customer no longers has to get wrapped up to trek out to the tank and take a dip reading, risking life and limb balancing on top of a tank in a howling gale. You can even take it all one stage further and have automatic ordering…. It may be that the site where the tank is is unmanned so you save them a regualr trip to site to take a level reading. The worse case is if your customer forgets to take a reading, runs out and their production stops - you get a call and it's panic stations. Your customer is losing money as production has stopped and you lose money as you've had to drop everything else and serve this one issue, setting a tanker off on a special journey that probably costs more than you make.

Telemetry also gives you traceability. Jump on the internet, log on to the secure site and select the tank in question, enter a date range and hey presto - a graph showing the tank level. No more disputed deliveries, see if product is being drawn out of the tank when it shouldn't be to detect leaks and catch thieves. You can even give yourself a helping hand at stock take time.

The knock on benefits become quite significant and this is just scratching the surface…….

GSM has so much to offer. I'm sure there are those who will disagree with me, mainly the telephone companies who provide pstn lines and the telemetry equipment manufacturers who are still struggling with the changes they need to make to embrace the mobile phone (GSM) network, but in my mind there is no reason to even dwell upon the decision. Chances are that you are fitting telemetry onto a customers site, whether it be domestic or industrial, so you either get a new phone line installed or you piggy back onto the exisitng one. Your company have just negotiated a new 12 month supply contract to a client and you need to get the remote monitoring system installed quickly - you call the telephone company who drag their feet and scratch their heads before coming up with a high price to fit the line cause the place where you want it a bit out of the way. Alternatively you piggy back onto the existing phone network, struggle with how to get modem ABC communicating through switchboard XYZ, and then just as things are going well someone unplugs the telemetry cause they don't know what it is and your engineers have to make a trip to site etc etc…

In the case of a domestic cutomer where you want to measure the level in their fuel storage tank. In order to use the phone line they already have you need to get into the house, not just to install but to solve any problems. You need to communicate from the tank to the phone line. You need to get into the home to find faults in the future (and you can bet your bottom dollar that the homeowner has unplugged your telemetry as they wanted to plug in the fax or something along those lines). Surely it would be easier if you could just roll up at the same time as delivering, screw something to the top of the tank, press a few buttons to check all was well and they you're away.

GSM gives you the flexibility you need; really quick and easy installation; redeployment elsewhere; flexibility and low operating cost. This goes back to one of my earlier blogs - use an end to end solution provider who takes responsibility for the sensor, the telemetry outstation, the sim card, the communications, the web based data presentation, the lot.

If you use a telephone line the telemetry provider has a get out clause - they can blast you with science and blame the phone company if things aren't working. You are reliant upon your customer to help you solve problems when really you should be helping them solve theirs.

I won't even mention the increased risk of lightning strikes, especially in remote areas, that you get with phone lines. Or the high cost of line rental.

You'll find most equipment manufacturers (the forward thinking ones at least) are pumping all their development effort into GSM. The latest lowest cost hardware uses GSM. Ask yourself why they are doing this and think carefully before you buy a telemetry system.

Keep control of your sim cards. One of the biggest questions I get asked by someone who is trying to implement a gsm telemetry solution is 'can I use pay as you go sim cards?' I give out my standard reply which is 'yes, you probably can but don't come crying to me when your system doesn't work. I have many clients happlily using pay as you go sim cards and never have any trouble. I alsoknow that one of the biggest problems our technical support peope have is helping out users with 'payg' sims. They aren't data enabled, or they have a pin code lock, or they run out of credit and they can't work out how to get them topped up, or they get deregistered from the network.

There are others out there who say they can get a better deal from the networks and want to use their own sim cards. This isn't quite so bad but it's still far from perfect. The things you are trying to monitor remotely scattered here, there and everywhere. The last thing you want is to have to go to site to sort a problem. Using your own sim cards can be fine, but then someone in your organisation does a global change on the sim contract and all of a sudden no telemetry. And if there is a problem who is repsonsible..? Is the folk that provide you with the sim cards or the folk that sold you the hardware. This can become a major problem all for what is at best penny pinching.

Take an end to end approach, and that means get someone who knows what they are doing, use an end to end solution provider, to provide the hardware, the sim cards, host the data, program the kit for you. Any problem is their problem, and they will know how to solve it.

Web enabled data acquistion & SCADA. As remote data acquistion systems and the hardware for GSM based SCADA systems become more cost effective we are seeing parallel developments in the way data is collected and presented and the clever money is on the web based data acquisition systems. The wonders of GPRS are making data transfer affordable and you can monitor something on the other side of the world in near real time - you can pretty much see a vehicle drive around the country on the web. The implications of web based data acquisition aren't just about convenience, they are about practicality.

The modern business I.T. infrastructure has firewalls and VPN's, intranets, multiple sites, home workers, mobile workers and so on. To 'roll out' a new bit of software to the relevant users is no simple task so if all you need do is point your browser somewhere and have your data at your fingertips (safe in the knowledge that it's secure behind usernames and passwords) then what could be better….?

The data can be hosted by a telemetry solution provider - you take out a contract with them and that's the end of your worries. They hold the data for you, you logon you, select what it is you want to monitor and the data is there for you. On most systems you can download the data as a spreadsheet, draw graphs, create reports etc.. The systems we provide allow you to auto log on to the server a 'pull' the data so it can then be imported into your business systems and automatically handled from there.

Watch out for too much data! You can have too much information - try and use a telemetry unit that can record information intelligently (perhaps when only the machine is running or just during working hours). It's not so much the cost of the data it's that there's too much for the human beings to process. You can make the telemetry system be proactive - send you an email to say that the bulk storage tank is nearly empty so please arrange a delivery, or the machine is broken so please come and fix it.

Vendor managed inventory (or VMI) is an application of telemetry that offers an excellent return on investment. Over time we have seen the cost of transporting product in bulk increase as the cost of fuel goes up, the cost if dirvers, insurance, the working time directive, the increased congestion on the roads etc etc.. At the same time we have seen the cost of telemetry come down which is making the solutions viable even when the number of deliveries each month or even year are minimal.

Added on to the reduced cost of transportation are the increased benefits to your customer - they no longer have to walk out the tank and take a reading and they h\ve the added assurance that if they forget to take a reading and reorder that you are there montoring things and telling them what they need. This saves having to arrange a delivery in a panic, you can start to schedule things to suit your logisitics and your manufacturing and save even more money.

So, why has telemetry become so viable…? Well, we've seen advancements in electronics and mobile phones so we can now utilise this technology as a means of communication. There's no need to get a phone line fitted near the tank, you have complete control and the hardware solution is less in cost. The world of GSM Telemetry has come on leaps and bounds in recent yours, reliability has improved and other application areas have latched onto it so there has been some decent investment in the technology and the economies of scale have kicked in.

Microprocessor technology has also come on a long way meaning that 5 and 7 year battery powered solutions are now possible. This further simplifies installation, reduces costs and even improves lightning integrity. New products such as the 'IN4MA metron' are starting to open up the field of remote tank level monitoring. Full hosted solutions are available.

The latest generation of telemetry solutions not only provide remote monitoring but can also incorporate control. One example is on diesel driven pumps which are used on sewage works as emergency replacements or when major work is being undertake, on sewer diversion projects as well on ground water clearance applications on building sites.

Normally these pumps are fitted on site, set off to run and just left to keep on running till they run out of fuel. This means the engines could be running even when they aren’t actually pumping anything which increases fuel costs significantly as well as adding to the hours run on the engine and therefore increasing the servicing requirements significantly. Typically these engines need servicing every 200 hours, so an engine left to run for less than 10 days will need a service over 35 times a year!

Having plant running unattended in remote locations can lead to service and operational issues. How do you know of the engine has stopped running because of a low oil pressure failure, or how do you now that the engine needs a service, and what are the implications?

One solution designed and developed by Powelectrics takes away these worries whilst helping the user save money and uses the GSM mobile phone network as the means of communication. The auto-start and telemetry device not only controls when the engine will run but will also send messages by sms (a mobile phone text message) and email advising you of a problem. The solution will work on mobile and portable applications in over 120 countries.

The system can still operate in manual, where the user can start and stop the engine by the turn of a key, the system can be put into automatic mode and starts if the high level is reached. The unit will then stop pumping when the low level is reached. All the time the engine is running hours run is monitored and advises the owner when a service is due as well as sending text message alarms if there is an oil pressure or an engine temperature problem. ‘High High’ level can also be monitored and an alarm can be sent out so the user can take appropriate action.

Every action is logged. When the engine started, stopped, sent an alarm etc.. This can be transferred to a server and posted on the Internet. Users can then log on via a secure username and password and look at the history of an engine / pump. The hirer of the pump can see if an engine on 5-day hire has been run on the weekend, or if a unit continually ‘trips out’ on low oil.

In some applications the engine may be only running for a few minutes at a time, which has the effect of draining the battery. We can easily configure the device to run for a minimum period to prevent this, or even to monitor the battery voltage and run the engine to bring the battery level back up to a minimum level.

Not only is the solution powerful and flexible, it is also remotely programmable. Parameters may change as well as mobile phone numbers – instead of a service engineer having to drive to site these changes can now be made from the warmth and comfort of the office. You can also interrogate the unit from your mobile phone, or your pc, or via the Internet so you can see if it has a service coming up soon.

The solution is by no means restricted to diesel driven pumps. It could also be applied to generator sets or anything that engine driven.

GPRS telemetry changes from country to country. The applications I generally get involved with don't require high volumes of data so traditionally have used GSM data calls and sms. However, more recent applications have demanded higher volumes of data so GPRS telemetry has become a little more prevelant. It's not necessarily the speed of data transfer that makes GPRS more viable but the cost, though the savings in running costs come at a price…..

I'd recommend you only bother looking at GPRS if your data volumes demand it and you are looking at quite a few systems. I'd also encourage you exert a little caution if you are working in different countries. Text messaging is great moving around the world - we at quite happily use UK based sim cards, configure the units and send them off to te required country and they work quite happily. With gPRS it's not so easy - settings changed, you have to deal with dynamic IP addresses, roaming sim cards decide they'd prefer to work on a network that doesn't support GPRS so you have to get a techie to the relevant country and sort it all out.

GPRS by the way is to the GSM mobile phone network what Broadband/ADSL is to the telephone network. It's always on (well, with GPRS it's on when you want it to be) and is faster (not quite the speeds you see from ADSL but that's an airwaves versus copper/fibre issue). Some networks don't let you have a public IP address so you've got to report in rather than request data (essentially it becomes a one way communications initiation system) and most don't (or can't?) give you a static IP address.

Keep it simple to save time and money. Our organisation have been supplying telemetry and remote monitoring solutions for many years and I have always been a great advocate of keeping things simple and making system easy to use. The electronic engineers seem to take a different view, and this isn't just at Powelectrics but anywhere, that the solutions need to be a little bit complicated to configure etc.. I'm pleased to say that we now have a product (The IN4MA Metron) which is really easy to use, really easy to configure and the applications it is suited to are plentiful.

It is the kind of product you can pop in a box, send it to countries far and wide and know that the user can have a quick read of the manual and away they go. With it being battery powered installation is really easy - none of this getting a permit to work of circuits or anything like that, just stick it on the wall, wire in your sensors and you're off.

The ease of use makes the installation and operating cost reduce, the simplicity makes it so pretty much anyone can have affordable remote monitoring without having to learn scripting languages, C++ or anything like that - my mum could almost set one up.

There's none of this trying to count the number of flashes of an LED as there's small text display that tells you what's going on, a menu funtion so you can see the state of the unit and how it's configured.

Watch out for the IN4MA Metron.... it's changing the face of telemetry


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