Designing Communications Reliability into the WirelessHART Standard

I received a sneak peak of a white paper in the works by Dr. José Gutierrez, corporate director of technology with Emerson. This paper, based on the Why WirelessHART? article, discusses diversity techniques to achieve the reliability design objectives in the WirelessHART standard.

José begins with some history of proprietary point-to-point wireless “cable replacement” solutions. Data transmission was required for these applications but cables were not economically feasible to install. These wireless solutions also typically were not designed to scale.

Process manufacturers have been under constant market pressure to improve efficiency and productivity. This pressure has spurred innovations by automation suppliers on numerous fronts including advanced diagnostic algorithms, improved sensor technologies and improved communications technologies especially in the area of wireless communications.

In the 1990s, the U.S. Defense department invested in wireless communications research with high reliability, highly secure and extremely low powered design objectives. This basic research fed into future developments by leading industrial and technology companies on the IEEE 802.15.4 radio-communications standard for wireless sensor and actuator applications. José served as chief technical editor of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard.

During this time in 2003, the HART Communications Foundation started its wireless efforts that culminated in the release of the WirelessHART standard in the fall of 2007. This standard is designed to support a range of applications including process monitoring, process control, equipment monitoring, environmental monitoring, energy management, asset management, predictive maintenance and advanced diagnostics.

What makes this range of applications possible is the advanced diversity techniques designed to achieve reliability greater than 99%. When best practices like three or more communications paths per device are applied, the reliability is significantly higher–approaching 100%.

The WirelessHART standard employs five methods of diversity: time, coding, frequency, path and power. Here’s my brief summary of each from the white paper.

Time diversity involves the use of intelligent data transmission scheduling to minimize collisions and recover from losses. WirelessHART uses synchronized time division multiplexing.

Coding diversity uses the radio spectrum where specific transmissions can be separated from noise and other simultaneous communications.

Wireless devices use frequency diversity (a.k.a. channel hopping) to dynamically choose different communications frequencies to avoid jamming or to mitigate interference from other wireless systems.

Path diversity comes from the self-organizing, mesh-communications network formation of wireless devices in a point-to-multipoint fashion back to the automation system and/or asset management system.

The final diversity technique used in the WirelessHART standard is power diversity where radio power transmission is controlled to a minimum level to destination devices to cut down on radio frequency noise for other devices using the same frequency spectrum.

I hope some of this background helps give you an appreciation for the techniques used to achieve high wireless communications reliability. The proof comes by giving it a try in your plant on measurements not currently possible or practical to wire.

Posted Thursday, June 12th, 2008 under Interoperability, Measurement, Technologies, Wireless.

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