M2M Communications Drives Wireless Sensor Network Implementation

Sensors Insights by Larry McCreary

With critical industries turning increasingly toward automated solutions, data transmission in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is taking center stage as the most important piece of the puzzle. Sensor technology is helping industries of all types navigate the continuous flow of data to make better decisions and improve operational efficiency, all while increasing productivity.

As wireless sensor networks continue to proliferate, the needs of the real-time enterprise network seamlessly coexisting within the industrial sectors are driving digitalized business models. This creates a wider emphasis on proactive IT departments and next-generation networking technologies.

As the automation of manual processes continues to grow in both popularity and necessity, decision makers have an opportunity to select from a plethora of available communication technologies. Enabling data collection via wireless sensor networks, while important, still depends on the quality, breadth and reliability of the wireless machine-to-machine (M2M) communications solutions implemented by an organization.

What It's All About

Wireless M2M communication technologies offer a wide variety of potential benefits. This underscores why an increasing number of industries are anticipating deploying M2M in the future to automate extensive sensor networks. The specific benefits gained vary based on the application served, but in general, the overall benefits from these solutions include:

  • Optimizing resource utilization
  • Better visibility into potential failures and key operational success factors through real-time visibility.
  • Reducing costs and environmental impact through monitoring/control across large geographic regions
  • Automating safety and security measures reduces critical event response time via specialized sensor networks.
  • Centralizing policy management creates greater adherence and more uniform enforcement of regulatory and compliance factors
  • Flexibility, Scalability and Mobility of deployment increase agility to adapt to changing market demands
  • Improving product quality

For industries that require many geographically dispersed assets and an increasingly mobile workforce, M2M networking technology ultimately is the glue connecting everything and, therefore the backbone of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) ecosystem – and the connected sensor networks within the IIoT.

When we talk about the IIoT ecosystem, most people think of data and devices, and how the two are inextricably linked together, essentially, the concept behind M2M. This ecosystem, however, does not, and cannot, exist without highly reliable and secure wireless communications technology.

In today's fast paced, get-it-done-yesterday environment, we don't have time to hardwire, or worry about interfaces, and protocols. Connecting the unconnected to automate processes, sensor networks, and access data plus control is what it's all about. This cannot be done with wires, unless our oil and gas producers, public utilities, municipalities and energy companies are willing to invest heavily in the time and resources to develop an expansive and retrenched network infrastructure across long distances one wire at a time (see fig. 1). Time-to-market and time-to-evenue drive business decisions and technology choices.

Fig. 1: Sensor networks in remote locations, such as an oil and gas setting, are enabled by M2M wireless communications.
Fig. 1: Sensor networks in remote locations, such as an oil and gas setting, are enabled by M2M wireless communications.

Enabling wireless sensor networks with M2M applications within our nation's critical infrastructure is a top objective today, but how can operators and IT departments leverage the best possible solution(s) for their assets and facilities? Before decision-makers purchase any wireless M2M communication technologies available today, it is imperative to review two important success factors that need to be addressed with these solutions: security and reliability.

Questions Worth Asking

Many would argue that our critical infrastructure projects are only as reliable and secure as the technology serving them. While reliability and security are completely separate success factors, they often play into one another. Overall, decision makers must consider some important questions in regards to reliability and security features of wireless M2M communication and networking solutions before ever selecting a technology. For example:

  • What is the M2M communications technology controlling or automating? Is it essential that it operates without failure?
  • What data is being collected and/or transmitted with this technology? Is it time-sensitive and/or mission-critical?
  • What technology solutions have a proven track record for the applications being served?
  • What external factors might impact the reliable transmission and receipt of critical data from one point to another?
  • How does this M2M communications technology address challenges such as data encryption, network access control and signal interference?
  • Do we need this technology solution to be fail-safe, in order to prevent or eliminate catastrophic damage from occurring?
  • Is cyber security or physical security a greater concern for this deployment?

Proprietary wireless communication technologies and devices, particularly when they offer many knobs and configuration options to create private, user-defined networks, actually offer a higher degree of security. But even those technologies are subject to security and reliability threats. Therefore, network access control is one of the most important security features for M2M communication and sensor networking technology for preventing unauthorized access and intrusion.

A proven communication network security strategy should go even further and protect data that's in-transit as well. Even if an unauthorized device manages to gain access to the M2M communication network, it isn't necessarily gaining access to the actual data without passing yet another layer of security. Also, a communication network security strategy needs to address and implement policies that serve as safeguards, which make it difficult to circumvent security measures and limit the potential impact of a security breach.

Finally, in order to complete the M2M security approach to wireless sensor networks, it takes vigilance. Vigilance is the action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties. Today's M2M networks are not heuristic, self-healing, adaptive, self-optimizing automatons. They require an educated observer who is looking for anomalies, aberrations, outliers, exceptions, and flat-out failures. Cutting-edge M2M requires standards-based protocols for determining the health of the network, integrity of the links, and performance of the overlying applications.

What's Next?

Unlike the past, organizations today cannot limit their communication technologies to just one vendor, one technology, or one service provider. In order to leverage the most cost-effective solutions for deploying sensor networks in a vast array of industrial settings, organizations will leverage multiple technologies for a hybrid networking approach to utilize the most cost-effective data transport medium possible.

Depending on the application of the sensor networks, organizations may have different sets of M2M communication needs across these critical industries, or maybe even across a single project as seen in precision agriculture's drive toward unique crop management zones in an automated farm setting. Ideally, organizations should have the choice to select a network topology or combination of networks that best suit their applications with a mix of high speed Ethernet and serial data ports for easily interconnecting with existing system technologies. The latest wireless M2M networking solutions can meet these requirements, integrate with existing technologies, preserve existing network infrastructure investments, and replace obsolete communications solutions without a hitch.

As industrial markets continue focusing more on safety, automation, and improving operational efficiencies, the demand for more intensive monitoring, measurement and automation via M2M communication and networking technology has naturally followed. Utilizing, and maximizing, the sensor technology that can enable this broad spectrum of needs is the focus of these industries today. Understanding the emerging developments of wireless sensor networks via M2M wireless communications, and reviewing the necessary security and reliability considerations, reveals an exciting, but challenging future for organizations attempting to leverage information in real-time.

About the Author

Larry McCreary is the Director of Customer Advocacy at FreeWave Technologies. He is responsible for delivering comprehensive product and sales training, as well as pre- and post-sales account management. Prior to FreeWave, McCreary worked as manager of systems engineering for Cisco, and has a background in network infrastructure security. He has more than 25 years of experience in the networking and infrastructure industries.

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