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Contextual mobility declutters on-the-go SCADA

How IIoT impacts oil & gas SCADA-based field mobility.


How data from these compressors in a natural gas pumping station is acquired, shared and analyzed is changing rapidly. Image courtesy: PcVue

The physical and material assets exploited by the oil & gas industry are geographically distributed. The upstream petroleum sources that feed production plants are almost invariably remote, for example. Moreover, the pumping stations along an oil pipeline, or the compressor stations along a gas pipeline, are dispersed over many miles.

Given this challenge, oil & gas industry mobile workers use supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) to aggregate data and manage information associated with remote assets, thereby reducing travel miles and improving data accuracy.

Suites of SCADA software applications manage processes and production in conjunction with field-installed sensors, PLCs, actuators, and other instrumentation. Improved SCADA connectivity and reduced cost will follow from advances in sensing, connectivity, and analytics identified with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Rugged, inexpensive sensors mean more data fed to tablets, smartphones, and other mobile devices accessing SCADA. However, that data, in and of itself, isn't knowledge until it gains context. In an IIoT-enabled world, what do employees and managers need to clearly understand the operations they are daily responsible for?

They need contextual mobility. Information delivery must be filtered, for example, based on user profiles and location, so that the right information is presented securely to the right person at the right location and at the right time. Contextual mobility declutters information on interface screens, leaving only the functionality needed for the user's role.

Location, location, location

Contextual mobility, as a term or concept, is achieved by what could be called contextual human-machine interface (HMI) technologies. For example, location-information management contributes to contextual mobility using standard geolocation features found on commercially-available smartphones and tablets. When outdoors, a GPS adapter is sufficient. Indoors, or in cases where there are multiple levels to discriminate, proximity services using micro-geotags are used.

Micro-geotags include Bluetooth low-energy (BLE), near-field communications (NFC) tags, QR codes, and Wi-Fi access-point triangulation.

To implement contextual mobility, a mobility server and its contextual-logic engine (CLE) is required. The CLE delivers content to mobile devices based on user profile and geo-zone location. It works like this: A mobile-device application senses and reports nearby geotags and GPS signals; then the mobility server can follow the device owner's movements and populate the user interface with information and controls.

With a properly-configured mobility server, information and functionality needed by the person logged onto the device at the determined geo-zone is presented automatically. Users need not navigate through miniaturized versions of control-room graphics scaled-down to the display screen of a smartphone or tablet.

Archiving device location chronologically has potential to improve safety, security, and efficiency. The PCVue solution can assist in an emergency; for example, it can be used to help evacuate an area or to warn users entering unsafe areas. It also can be used to control access to designated areas. Where recording worker movements via personal devices is not allowed, as is the case under certain labor agreements, the mobility server archiving function is off.

In these and other cases, SCADA can continue performing its supervisory function, serving as an aggregation point for process control and production-management coordination. The mobility server is the means to a dynamic user interface for mobile workers using SCADA. It supports focus on information needed to complete work, based on a specific role at a specific location.

Possible use examples

Let's consider how mobile workers might benefit from contextual mobility. A maintenance worker heads out to a compressor station equipped with tablet and a contextual-mobility application.

The worker arrives onsite and logs in. The CLE downloads station equipment status to the worker's tablet. In this case, let's imagine that there is an alarm being raised on a compressor. The device shows the compressor alarm status and that of other station equipment in the geo-zone covering the compressor station.

As the building that houses the compressor is approached, a smartphone is used to gain access to a building sub geo-zone. Upon entering, the worker can access real-time equipment data, including time trends. At the compressor, scanning a small QR code gives the worker access to a third nested geo-fence and additional information. Included might be maintenance histories, documents, and procedures, as well as function controls to place the compressor in maintenance mode to suppress alarms related to the repair.

When the work is complete the worker updates the log and leaves. All related functionality and information come off the phone as he physically leaves the station.

A second use case involves a field operator in a gas plant. Plant equipment typically has small HMI interfaces for visual status monitoring. With contextual mobility, these multiple HMIs may not be necessary. Instead, as the operator approaches the equipment the appropriate HMI becomes available on his mobile device. If the equipment needs adjustment, the functionality and related information is at his fingertips.

During his rounds, he may make note of current values of unconnected data using his mobile device and based on his location have access to a form ready for on-line data entry.

Impact on traditional SCADA

IIoT offers possibilities for integrating additional instrumentation into SCADA projects. IIoT connectivity networks simplify data acquisition, including alternative means to accomplish integration. IIoT sensor data is different not only in how it is acquired, but also in its applicability to SCADA situational awareness.

As an independent global SCADA software platform provider for over 30 years, PCVue watched SCADA grow and evolve, including the networks used for data acquisition. We support the latest architectures to acquire IIoT-sensor feeds and consolidate them with SCADA's real-time data. This means adding IIoT data feeds into SCADA hosts that are currently using hardwired industrial IP networks, often with legacy serial-communications in the mix.

Two business models have emerged for connecting low-power, wide-area networks (LPWAN) to IIoT sensors. First are providers offering a complete infrastructure. One supplier, for example, provides a standard API for consumers to connect to any IoT or IIoT sensor in its environment, including cell towers and servers. These systems are designed for updates on an infrequent basis with minimal data exchanged. There is a fee charged each time the infrastructure is used to acquire data.

A different approach is taken by the LoRa Alliance, an open, non-profit association of members who are collaborating on the LoRa protocol, LoRaWAN. LoRaWAN is quite interesting for SCADA applications because it is not a turnkey infrastructure. It is possible to purchase LoRaWAN gateways and associate the gateways with IIoT sensors reporting back to network servers. The user (or third-party service providers) own the equipment and therefore the data architecture and costs associated with transmission. This means that SCADA data does not have to go through the cloud but can be acquired and consumed at a local plant or station.

Based on the history of our industry, we expect that SCADA data acquisition from IIoT will be accomplished in different ways that are very likely happening in parallel. This is consistent with what has happened in previous networking evolutions, which is why SCADA platform providers still have and support serial communications. In the case of IIoT there will be some data in a cloud platform. It will therefore be necessary to integrate cloud-based sensor data into the SCADA environment. At other times, when speed is a factor, sensor data will need to be acquired without going to the cloud first.

Impact on mobile SCADA

Given increasing ease in adding IIoT sensors to SCADA, increasing data amounts will be integrated into SCADA. This is coming at a time when workers are increasing mobile and looking to their devices for real-time SCADA data.

Consider the monitoring of electrical devices associated with a gas plant. More and more electrical devices are now available as intelligent electronic devices (IED). The many new IEDs coming online greatly increase the amount of available sensor data.

What it all means

While critically important to understanding loading and performance, as well as the health of the IED itself, it also creates new risks. One is the risk that the operators ignore the new data, but the higher risk is that the operators get confused by the amount of data presented and make a bad decision because of it. We need to help operators find actionable data they can use to make informed decisions.

SCADA is traditionally a control-room solution. Modern control rooms use many screens to track various aspects of a process. As operators rely more on their mobile devices we have the "real-estate problem." The amount of screen real-estate available to display mobile SCADA information is much less than that of control rooms. This is happening just as the amount of data to display is increasing.

The combination of increasing sensor information coming from IIoT devices combined with adoption of mobile devices as the primary interface to industrial SCADA and HMI systems has both challenges and opportunities. Competing priorities for more information and for less real estate are diametrically opposed. The status quo of SCADA design does not fit well with this emerging environment and an alternative approach is needed.

To make sense of SCADA data and maintain operator situation awareness it's necessary to downsize and get smarter about the way SCADA information is presented to users. Others take the position "just use our portal to get what you need from the cloud." We find this to be an overly simplistic solution. It does little to help the users understand the SCADA data and translate that to situational awareness.

A better approach is a model based on the inclusion of a mobility server equipped with a contextual-logic engine, which gives users information and controls to do their jobs when they are on-site and better-positioned to make use of data.

Ed Nugent, chief operating officer, PcVue.

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