This kinetic mesh network node comes in a rugged, environmentally sealed case. (Rajant Corporation photo)

Kinetic Mesh Networks Make Remote Operations Safer

Unlike network devices made for more benign environments, the devices made for use in a kinetic mesh network must work wherever they are deployed.

Workers in remote operations, such as far-flung oilfields or oil rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico, face a number of risks. These include harsh weather, equipment malfunction, and human threats. One way to mitigate these risks is with the use of kinetic mesh network technology. The use of a kinetic mesh network technology helps companies keep track of assets, make logistics easier, and provide valuable operating and security data. The bottom line is that personnel are safer and companies save money, as well.

For most operations, a network with fixed nodes is all that is required. A factory, for example, will have entrances and exits that need to be monitored and perhaps manufacturing equipment from which you need to collect data. These assets are relatively fixed. You may change the location of an entrance or exit occasionally or move equipment around on the factory floor from time to time, but these changes are not frequent.

For this type of application, a wired network normally suffices. The network components are relatively inexpensive and because the network nodes are not spread over a very wide area, connecting the nodes to the network is not a big problem.

Now, let's consider the networking needs of a more demanding location, such as an offshore oil rig or an oil and gas drilling operation. These operations are often located in the "middle of nowhere" and cover tens of square miles. Often, in situations like this, there is no existing cellular, advanced mobile broadband or Wi-Fi infrastructure. For these sites, a kinetic mesh network is a more appropriate solution.

How Kinetic Mesh Technology Works
To build a network in a situation where the assets are constantly changing locations, you first of all need a wireless network technology. It's just not possible to network an oil rig to an approaching helicopter, for example, without some kind of wireless link.

These wireless networking devices act as electronic "breadcrumbs," and they come in a variety of different configurations, including some that are meant to be bolted to a vehicle or piece of equipment and some that are made to be carried by personnel. Unlike network devices made for more benign environments, the devices made for use in a kinetic mesh network must work wherever they are deployed. As a result, they must be able to handle shock and vibration, dust, and extreme temperatures. The photograph accompanying this article shows a node with a rugged, environmentally sealed packaging that is designed to handle rugged conditions.

Another consideration for kinetic mesh networks is the frequency on which they'll operate. You'll need to have a license to operate on certain bands, but on other bands, no license is required. The choice of frequencies is highly dependent on the application.

In high-reliability applications, nodes that can operate on multiple frequencies are desirable. In normal operation, with a kinetic mesh network with nodes capable of operating on two different frequencies, most of the nodes can communication with one another on both frequencies. If one of the frequencies begins to experience interference, some of the nodes lose the ability to communicate on 5.8 GHz but remain in contact on the 2.4 GHz channel, for example. Nodes capable of operation on only one frequency would fail in this application, but a two-frequency node is still capable of communications.

In addition to robust hardware, a kinetic mesh network needs robust software. In order to maintain contact with the network and choose the most expeditious path for the data, each node must be aware of the other nodes in its environment. Not only that, each node must constantly update this information as it and other nodes in the network constantly change positions.

To maintain reliability, the network must not use a root node or LAN controller. By making each individual node responsible for its own routing, the network will continue to function even if an individual node should fail.

Compatibility is another issue for kinetic mesh networks. They need to be compatible with IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n standards so that commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) client devices, such as laptops, smartphones, IP cameras, sensors, VoIP phones, and other IP devices, can be connected to them. This compatibility also enables users to connect the kinetic mesh networks to the outside world. This may be accomplished using a fiber optics link, microwave link, or even a satellite link.

Kinetic Mesh Networks in Action
Kinetic mesh networks are currently in use in many applications, including mining, oil and gas exploration, railroads, and the military, enabling data, voice, and video communications. The applications built on top of the network are:

  • Improving personnel safety
  • Facilitating equipment safety and maintenance
  • Easing logistical challenges

For example, one customer uses a kinetic mesh network to provide communications for workers in the shale fields of west Texas. This location, out in the middle of a desert, includes 1,500 wells. Every one is potentially dangerous, and it's miles to the nearest cell phone tower.

The kinetic mesh network in this location helps improve personnel safety in several different ways. Personnel can be issued GPS fobs so that, if they become injured, they can be located quickly and evacuated promptly. In addition, this installation uses IP cameras to monitor the comings and goings of personnel and vehicles, and it uses facial-recognition software and license plate-recognition software to ensure that the vehicles and personnel out there are supposed to be out there.

The network also helps the customer monitor weather conditions. By connecting weather-monitoring stations to the network, they can detect dangerous weather conditions and alert personnel when dangerous weather is approaching. This gives the employees enough time to either clear out or take shelter.

As you can imagine, reliability is paramount. When a hazardous situation occurs, getting the right information can be vitally important. With a kinetic mesh network in place, they're confident that they're doing all they can to make this site as safe as possible.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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