DOE, industry create new generation of wireless sensors

U.S. Department of Energy
Tags: energy management

Some exciting new wireless sensors are proving to be highly effective in monitoring and controlling industrial equipment and processes. These sensors, which were developed with support from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Industrial Technologies Program (ITP), can also help improve process reliability, reduce waste and downtime, and enhance the safety of employees, all of which ultimately boost a plant’s productivity and profitability.

ITP has been involved with wireless sensor work since 1999. Sponsored activities are designed to identify, develop and deploy integrated measurement systems for operator-independent control of manufacturing processes. Technologies are developed for application in more than one industry, and systems are designed to work in harsh industrial environments. Ultimately, these systems should enable a plant to achieve a high level of productivity and quality as well as increase the plant’s energy efficiency by as much as 10 percent (for more information, see Industrial Wireless Technology for the 21st Century (PDF 1.3 MB) on the ITP Web site). Download Adobe Reader.

New wireless sensors not only eliminate the cost of the wiring and cabling needed for conventional sensor technologies, they also save money by contributing to a plant’s overall energy efficiency. They can quickly identify inefficiencies so plant managers can correct them before they become serious problems. They can also be cost-effective in applications not directly related to energy efficiency.

Several new products are based on technologies developed with the technical assistance and funding provided through the ITP Sensors and Automation program area. Selected through a competitive bidding process, industrial partners in this work include, among others, General Electric Company (GE); Sensicast Systems Inc.; Honeywell International; and Eaton Corporation. GE, Sensicast and Honeywell have already introduced new sensors into the marketplace based on wireless technologies developed under ITP sponsorship, and Eaton should not be far behind.

One project partner has estimated that ITP-sponsored research and development projects with industry have made wireless sensors a reality five years sooner than they would have been without ITP as a catalyst. This work has also alerted the company’s business units to the prospects for wireless measurement systems.

Working with ITP, GE Develops Important New Products

GE has introduced several products based on the robust radio technology developed in ITP-sponsored work. One product developed by GE, LabWatch, is used in stability, environmental and facility monitoring applications, and is especially suitable for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. GE reports that LabWatch is capable of precise monitoring combined with alarming, reporting and data collection features.

Another GE product, the Kaye RF ValProbe, integrates radio frequency mesh technology with established thermal validation loggers produced by GE Sensing. The RF ValProbe system includes RF wireless loggers, a base station and software. The loggers provide accurate measurements of temperature, humidity, and any 4-20 or 0-10 volt output. GE notes that the software is easy to use and incorporates such features as a self-configuring mesh network and automatic data collection.

GE is also developing a wireless sensor that can be used to monitor industrial motors as well as environmental conditions in industrial settings. Electric motors use 60 percent of the electricity consumed in industry, and motor failures can cause costly losses in production time. Purchasing wireless sensors for motors and other important equipment can be a far better solution than spending from $40 to as much as $2,000 per foot on wiring for conventional sensors.

The GE system is both diagnostic and prognostic. It monitors the motor’s condition, performance, and efficiency. The central station analyzes data obtained from the wireless sensors and can identify which motor components need maintenance. The system also projects which motors will fail next, and when, so that repairs and replacements can be done without sacrificing productivity.

For more information, visit the GE Sensing division’s Web site.

Sensicast Introduces a Robust Wireless Sensor Network

Sensicast Systems, a GE subcontractor, has used the robust radio developed in an ITP-funded project to link with standard-interface sensors and wirelessly provide measurements of temperature, humidity, pressure, flow, vibration, voltage, current and motion, among other variables. With an earlier Sensicast sensor technology, up to 30 percent of the data monitored by each sensor was not received at the designated monitoring station. Today, because of technical advances achieved under the ITP program, nearly 100 percent of the data from each sensor is received.

Using sensors to monitor and optimize the performance of compressed air systems can help industrial facilities operate at peak efficiency. In the past, however, it was not practical because of the high cost of wiring the sensors to a monitoring station. Today, a new low-cost wireless sensor technology, funded by DOE and developed by GE and Sensicast, could revolutionize the operation and optimization of compressed air and other systems.

The wireless technology was field-tested in an actual paper mill’s compressed air system to capture performance data from three compressors. Employees of the paper mill were so pleased with the technology’s performance that they decided to use it to monitor the demand side of the compressed air network. In less than 24 hours, seven wireless flow meters were inexpensively deployed throughout the facility to identify inefficiencies in compressed air use. Because of the resulting energy savings and the ease of implementing the technology, the paper mill decided to add five more wireless demand-point measurements.

Wireless radio technology initially created by Sensicast under ITP’s sponsorship has also been incorporated in systems used to perform two key roles in the Ferreira Group headquarters building in Branchburg, New Jersey, which is the nation’s first net-zero-electric commercial building. As such, the building’s photovoltaic (solar electric) system produces more electricity on an annual basis than the building takes from the utility power grid.

First, wireless sensors enable the building’s photovoltaic array to be tuned for maximum efficiency while simultaneously identifying any array malfunctions. The SensiNet wireless sensor network generates a maintenance request automatically if problems are found, providing maintenance personnel with the exact location of the problem.

Second, sensors monitor the building’s energy-consuming systems and wirelessly link this information to a display that provides a comprehensive picture of the status of the building’s systems. A control system uses this information to minimize the building’s energy consumption. Over a year’s time, the building will produce an extra month’s worth of electricity, which is then sold back to the grid.

For more information, see Sensicast’s Web site.

Why Go Wireless?

  • Lower installation and maintenance costs
  • Ease of replacement and upgrading
  • Reduced connector failure
  • Greater physical mobility and freedom
  • Practical deployment of micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technology
  • Faster commissioning

Honeywell’s OneWireless Solution Supports Multiple Applications

ITP also supported work that has resulted in Honeywell’s OneWireless universal mesh network. The wireless technology developed as part of a cost-shared contract with DOE has been incorporated into this second-generation network.

Honeywell reports that the new network was developed to support a number of wireless-enabled applications and devices within a single environment. The network is simple to manage, easy to upgrade, and efficient to operate, and it supports multiple industrial protocols and applications simultaneously. Its key attributes include a single, plant-wide infrastructure that is relatively low in cost; an ability to connect sensors simultaneously to a variety of protocols, such as HART, OPC and Modbus; and high reliability and flexibility.

The OneWireless network was developed to optimize industrial operations, provide reliability, assure compatibility, help provide easy access to data, and increase security, asset life and worker safety. The network is particularly useful for process monitoring, inventory management, health and safety assurance, and environmental compliance. Like other systems funded through ITP, the Honeywell system uses a mesh network to ensure automatic rerouting should any element fail.

Honeywell is quite aware of the value of standards that will make wireless sensor systems compatible with each other and able to function in the presence of other kinds of wireless systems, such as cellular phones. Among the standards-setting groups that Honeywell supports is the ISA SP100 committee on wireless systems for automation.

ITP encourages all its contractors to participate in current standards-setting activities. And all have agreed to make any technological or other changes needed to ensure that their systems conform to new standards.

For more information, see the Honeywell Process Solutions Web site.

Eaton Works to Cut Motor Maintenance Costs, Improve Reliability

With support from ITP, Eaton has been developing a low-cost wireless motor monitoring system that continuously measures line voltage and current to evaluate motor energy use. This system will gather energy data based on Eaton’s novel online inferential algorithms for energy estimation and condition-based monitoring of electric motors and connected loads.

Advanced energy management monitoring and diagnostic systems in medium and large electric motor applications (above 200 horsepower) are providing energy savings and economic benefits as well as reduced environmental impacts. However, 98 percent of all electric motors in industry are less than 200 horsepower. If monitoring, protection, and prognostic systems similar to those for large electric motors were implemented for smaller motors, industry could reduce the energy used in process areas by an estimated 5 to 18 percent.

Eaton is working to achieve this level of energy savings through novel, non-intrusive energy, efficiency and wellness monitoring. One focus of the work is to research, test, develop and deploy a wireless sensor network for advanced energy management solutions.

The technology will support open wireless protocols and be self-configuring, robust and secure in industrial environments, and it will enable Eaton’s novel online electric motor energy and condition monitoring. This could dramatically improve performance to minimize the adverse effects of coexistence, electromagnetic interference and electromagnetic compatibility.

For more information about Eaton Corporation, see the company’s Web site.


Much more has come from, and continues to come from, ITP’s wireless projects. The work ranges from hardware to software to the creation of industry standards. These standards are likely to be based on one or more of the technologies created by ITP’s industrial partners and contractors. Once the standards are adopted, all participants in the standard-setting activity have agreed to make their systems conform to them.

Permeating this work is the excitement of knowing that DOE funding is helping to create a whole new generation of industrial sensors. For more information and updates, be sure to visit the ITP Sensors and Automation Web site regularly.

Read More Energy Matters Articles on These Topics

New Call-to-action