Last year, we reported about how Industrial IoT (IIoT) is being pitched as the next big thing, and according to industry experts, by the year 2020, the industry could be worth a whopping $151bn.
All thanks to the phenomenal proliferation of smart devices and networked sensors, IIoT has been successful in providing unprecedented levels of control and visibility in the industrial environments. However, unfortunately, not all the industrial environments have been successful in reaping the benefits of this Internet of Things revolution.
This is mainly because of the fact that many of these industrial environmental have to face some very unique communication and networking challenges, such as networking technologies, restrictions on the installation of cabling, and regulatory restrictions on the use of radio frequency (RF) etc. This usually happens because of the production of electromagnetic waves during the various manufacturing processes which is capable of disrupting the RF-based communications, or conversely due to the RF networking gear caused disruption to the plant equipment.
It is interesting to note that RF wireless communications are not up to regulatory standards in a majority of industrial environments all around the world. According to the current regulatory standards, RF communications are prohibited in safety-critical systems such as the nuclear facilities, and in many parts of the electromagnetic spectrum in medical work. This ends up having a major impact in a number of popularly used communications technologies, including biggies like cellular, DECT, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee.
But as they say, if there’s a problem, there’s a solution. And, the solution to these challenges being faced by IIoT can be met by the emerging data-over-sound field, which involves innovative use of streams of audio tones and devices that can exchange information by using nothing but a speaker and microphone. The technology, which was first brought to the fore in the consumer realm by Chirp app and ecosystem, is now battle-tested, and is currently available to developers all around the globe in a number of cross-platform SDKs.
When it comes to an industrial setting, there are several equipments that were previously isolated but can be now put to use to communicate with the technicians’ hand-held devices, plant’s network, or even other autonomous equipment in a machine-to-machine setting, thus making available the operational and productivity benefits of Internet of Things where they weren’t previously possible.
Since sound-based networking requires low setup and minimal hardware infrastructure costs, it ends up serving as a bridge for interconnecting vastly different generations of technology.
Sound As A Networking Tool
It is not something new when we say sound being used as a means of sending data. In fact, if we just take moment and analyse our daily lives, we will realise that humans make use of sound to send data almost every second of the day since we use sound to convey information using our speech. Back in the day of radiotelephony, techniques such as Morse code were put to use to transmit text over lossy links. When it comes to the recent times, dial-up modems make use of audio-based modulation to exchange data over the phone line, thus furnishing another example of sound being used to send data.
However, like any other technology this technology also has to be reinvented time and again in order for it to remain relevant. Hence, the data-over-sound technology has seen a reinvention in the age of Internet of Things. Advancements in the technology of encoding and decoding have now made data transmission over sound between two or more devices that are kept metres apart, a possible scenario. Nowadays, any device with a speaker can encode and play information, and any nearby device with a microphone can decode the data provided they are within hearing range.
Similar to RF technologies, transmitting data using sound also involves various different schemes and standards. In fact, some even make use of different frequency bands. Most of the famously used data-over-sound technologies involve the use of some variant of frequency-shift keying. This is because the method gives relatively high throughput and reliability in over-the-air environments. It’s implementations vary between the usage of audible and ultrasonic portions of the acoustic frequency spectrum.
Not only can sound be used for facilitating communication between offline devices and equipment, but it can also used to complement several existing network infrastructures by simply building a data-over-sound wireless link between the devices that were previously-offline and the wider area network.
Data-over-sound as a complementary technology ends up representing a very compelling addition alongside the RF networking standards. This is because: It is ubiquitous, extremely portable and simple.
As mentioned earlier, Chirp is currently the most mature and trusted player in the data-over-sound field, with a wide adoption in over 90 countries all across the globe. It’s technology has several powerful benefits in industrial environments, which are as follows:
No Device Pairing Required: The technology does not require its devices to go through any prior handshake process before the exchange of data takes place. This significantly ends up reducing the operator time.
Leverages Existing Audio Infrastructure: Since sound is capable of utilising the existing audio infrastructure such as the PA systems to transmit data, this means that even devices and equipment that are widely dispersed around a factory can be communicated with as long as they are within range of a speaker.
Communication With Old, Legacy Equipment Made Possible: The technology makes it possible for even the old, legacy devices with audio capabilities to communicate with a wider network by simply making use of their speakers. Equipment that are minus a native audio are still capable of transmitting data by simply connecting with some audio-capable companion device.
Does Not Require A Network: Since data can be simply encoded and transmitted using streams of sound, hence the technology doesn’t require a network connection to send or receive data.
2-way Communications: Since any device with a speaker and microphone can act as a sender and receiver of data, sound is able to facilitate frictionless two-way M2M communications without a network. The call-and-response exchanges allow users to make sure that the data is being successfully transmitted from end-to-end.
Use Cases of Data-Over-Sound Technology
Location Tracking, Access And Authentication
Sound is used as a part of a multi-step personnel authentication process for access-controlled areas or systems. Furthermore, within the multiple zones typical of industrial setups, sound is used to detect and then track the location of personnel with sound-enabled devices such as sonic ‘beacons’. This is made possible through the audible or ultrasonic protocols.
As already established earlier in the article, sending data-over-sound enables an efficient and frictionless communication with equipment located in RF-restricted areas or with legacy equipment.
Hence, in industrial areas where RF networking technologies usage is restricted, data-over-sound technology can come to use and record the data onto tablet applications and then send it to a microphone or a conveniently located listening terminal.
Further, the technology can be also used in situations where due to security concerns it has been deemed undesirable to provide a direct network connection to an equipment. For example, in a situation where any unauthorised access from the outside world has to be avoided, a ‘listen-only’ connectivity enabling equipment can be created using the technology that will be successfully able to do the work but still maintain a secure air gap with the network.
When equipment and workforces are equipped with sound-enabled devices, it allows transmission of data, instructions or alerts to take place on a mass scale within an industrial setup.
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