Automation & IT

Active sensors make drums smart


May 26, 2006

Chemical plants, already increasingly relying on intelligent field devices tied into control networks, may benefit from a different type of smart sensor for goods and equipment. This month, a test of such sensors will begin at a BP chemical plant in Hull, U.K.

The test is part of the so-called Collaborative Business Items (CoBIs) project, a €4.7-million effort sponsored by the European Union’s Information Society Technologies research initiative. Its goal is to develop a framework for using embedded sensors, computing components and short-range wireless transmitters on goods and items to enhance information availability and use. The basic idea is that by avoiding central “back end” systems typically employed for services such as inventory tracking those services can be made more reliable, responsive, scalable and cost-effective. SAP AG, BP International Ltd., Infineon Technologies Austria AG, Ambient Systems, as well as the University of Karlsruhe, Lancaster University and the University of Twente are involved in the project, which will run through January.

Unlike Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, which generally provide static information such as product name and lot number, the sensors (expected to be available in a broad range of types) will be able to monitor various attributes and conditions, communicate peer-to-peer and collaborate — indicating conditions that no single sensor could on its own.

“What we are doing is making sensor network technology useful to business by creating a system that responds to the need for real-time information. It allows goods to act and react automatically to changes at the local level, and warn operators of the change,” says Stephan Haller, a senior researcher for SAP, Karlsruhe, Germany, who is coordinating the CoBIs project.

The sensor-node hardware consists of so-called “particles,” which were originally developed at the University of Karlsruhe and now are sold by a spin-off company called Particle Computer, notes Haller. The hardware sells for €125 a unit, but prices should decrease with higher volumes, he adds.

The CoBIs project is particularly focusing on chemical plants because of the safety benefits the technology can offer and because such plants are likely to be early adopters.

The test at Hull is slated to begin in mid-June and run for about a month, says Mike Haley, a Sunbury-Upon-Thames, U.K.-based senior consultant at BP’s chief technology office, with up to 40 drums of chemicals equipped with tags that will act collaboratively. “We hope to demonstrate that by embedding basic ‘intelligence’ into business objects we can make our workplace safer and processes more efficient,” he adds.

During the test, the tags are expected to allow calculation of the total volume of each chemical in a given area, to trigger alarms should incompatible chemicals be moved near each other, to track drum movement and to monitor storage conditions, e.g., temperature and humidity. They also will send data to a back-end historian. “We will learn a great deal from the trial and, depending on the results, will decide what to do next,” Haley says.

Haller reckons that commercial adoption of full systems could occur within three to five years. “These next-generation RFID tags have a great potential and could or will make a big difference in industry in the future,” adds Haley.