The future will provide users with enhanced real time access for environmental monitoring that will enable remote access to weather condition data from the roadside to coastal waters.
As summer draws to a close, we all begin to brace ourselves for the harsh weather conditions that often pose problems to road and rail travel. Couple this with the relentless annual rise in traffic volume, then the costs, in terms of delays to industry and personal injury, can become significant. Clearly the efficiency of our modern economy rests on implementing practical improvement measures. Technology is often the answer and remote environmental data logging and monitoring is just one solution.
Environmental gauges and sensors are often installed in remote locations that can be difficult to access physically if positioned hundreds or even thousands of miles away. In many cases, time is of the essence, particularly for applications such as storm surge monitoring, where timely warnings on rising sea levels and wind speed are vital for flood affected areas.
Data logging has been used to record data from remote instrumentation for many years. However, originally the logger had no communications facilities and a site visit was required to collect the data. The cost was therefore high and only historical data was available. Only analysis of past situations was possible, prediction of future events likely to be too late for any immediate action to be taken.
The addition of communications to the data loggers in situations like these was a revelation. By adding a modem to suitable instrumentation or metering units measured data could be transferred down a telephone line. Typically, a user based at a central location would be able to download the metered data by simply ringing up the modem, as and when required. No longer was it necessary to incur the cost of a site visit to collect data. Access to the data was almost immediate so that it was possible to react, in time, to the situation defined by the data collected rather than just carry out a historical analysis.
Sounds simple and the benefits are huge, but there are some important factors to consider. First of all the modem and metering equipment must be compatible, although now it is possible to add a modem to almost any instrument.
Secondly, insist on installing modems built to an industrial specification using rugged components. Too often, the mistake is to use commercially available units simply because of cost. Unfortunately, these units are not designed to cope with harsh remote conditions, leading to costs in downtime and inefficiency. Other factors to consider include connection time delays (important when controlling vast modem networks), the connection speed (important for downloading vast amounts of data on an infrequent basis), remote diagnostics of the modem and line condition, and whether additional power sources are needed.
Such demands have forced manufacturers to respond to ensure remote environmental monitoring is a viable success. Jekyll Electronic Technology is one such company who has been providing the environmental market and utility company suppliers with industrial telemetry solutions for many years.
As well as designing telemetry solutions to suit individual applications, Jekyll has made its name on an extensive range of telemetry modems called the Telemodem2, used extensively in multi-utility metering, plant condition monitoring and remote environmental monitoring.
Small enough to fit inside a meter, monitor or data logger, Jekyll’s Telemodem2 range begins with the ‘Standard’ for low power entry level needs, followed by the line powered ‘Freedom’ version for true ‘zero power’ remote monitoring. Key features include data transfer rates up to 2400bps, remote diagnostics for on-line set up, industry standard 25 way ‘D’ data port connections, flexible interfacing, a choice of mounting options and CTR21 compliance for use throughout Europe.
Latest additions include a 14,400 bps ‘Fastlink’ version, for transferring larger amounts of data during a single connection, and a new low power ‘Mobile’ model that sends data across GSM/GPRS communication networks rather than fixed lines for greater flexibility and reduced installation costs.
Remote roadside monitoring
One company to see the advantages was Vaisala Ltd, based in Birmingham. Vaisala supplies weather stations to road and rail authorities who want to issue warnings on weather conditions in their area and schedule maintenance programmes accordingly. Inside the weather stations are accurate sensors capable of measuring precise conditions of wind speed, surface temperature and humidity.
Jekyll has provided the telemetry capability to each station, in the form of its zero power Telemodem2 modem. This enables users to download data, measured by the sensor, to central premises without having to visit the location on site. Vaisala has also taken advantage of the zero power capability of the Telemodem2 and linked it to solar powered weather stations as well.
During a typical operation, the user dials up the modem in a routine schedule and downloads the data from a roadside monitoring device of interest down to a central database. With certain software packages, like Jekyll’s ‘Remote Manager’ Windows® program, the operator is also able to set-up the system easily, check the line condition and communicate with sophisticated remote monitoring networks from a single location. This capability means that, regardless of any previous telemetry experience, one operator can instantly appraise the roadside weather conditions across an entire region, and check on the line condition and modem diagnostics at will.
This remote roadside monitoring solution offers enormous benefits to local authorities, emergency services, traffic specialists and travellers alike.
Despite Government assurances, local authorities, which have the responsibility for overseeing 95 per cent of Britain’s road network, claim to receive only a third of what is adequately required for their road maintenance programmes. This shortfall means that highway engineers are having to adopt a more ‘reactive maintenance’, rather than planned maintenance approach in order to reduce costs. Any technology that assists in improving this reaction time is going to be helpful.
The time may also come when funding for road maintenance schemes will be based on a local authority’s record for safety, congestion levels, accident rates, traffic jams, noise and overall organisation programme. Local authorities often argue that more resources are needed to meet ever-increasing target demands. Yet, if the screw is tightening over funding issues, reducing costs will become ever more significant. Once again, any technology that helps managers deploy resources and streamline operations more efficiently is going to be a major step in the right direction.
Since speed is of the essence, the ability to monitor the weather conditions, say at strategic road hot spots or remote areas on a rail track, would also benefit everyday travellers. Imagine a scenario where town planners are able to issue detailed road conditions to a wide range of users, including the general public.
With such technology in place, road conditions can be checked instantly, 24 hours a day. This is particularly vital during winter for gritting schedules and maintenance contracting operators. Such a system may also be of immense value to emergency crews, such as crash investigators who may require evidence of detailed data on the roadside conditions at the scene of a road traffic accident.
It remains a fact that the public sector is having to justify spending plans to a greater extent than ever before, especially with more publicprivate partnerships infiltrating service provisions. With remote roadside monitoring technology in place, authorities are able to take the lead in risk management and demonstrate a responsible attitude towards regional transport and resource allocation.
Improving the transport provision for all users is the main objective, and such early warning systems are likely to impact on safety figures, as well as congestion problems for pedestrians and motorists alike. Proven success
Remote roadside monitoring is already proving to be a great success. Vaisala has installed approximately 500 systems so far around the UK and Ireland roads, almost all fitted with a Jekyll modem. 100 of the units are also solar powered, which reduces the environmental impact even further. Currently, the information from each station is relayed back to centralised company premises in Birmingham, and offered to clients such as weather forecasting agencies, local authorities, academic researchers and other interested parties.
Storm surge forecasting
Flooding is another hot topic. The ability of the Meteorological office to issue timely warnings on coastal flooding and sea activity is now stronger than ever before. In a move to address this, all forty-four sea level monitoring stations that make up the National Tide Gauge Network have recently been fitted with Jekyll Telemodem2 technology for instant data downloading.
The Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL) based at Bidston Observatory, Merseyside developed the network and continues to maintain it, backed by funding from DEFRA. At the start of the project, Jekyll engineers fine-tuned the interface and mounting options between the modem and weather stations to ensure a smooth telemetry connection.
The entire system is now fully operational. The stations are positioned at strategic points around the UK coastline and used by the UK Storm Tide Forecasting Service (hosted by the Met Office) and other authorised personnel. Authorised users are able to call up any station on the network and download measured data on sea level, wind speed and wind direction in near real time. Although similar telemetry systems were in place before, none offered the benefits of continuous line power and therefore did not offer true 24/7 access.
Jekyll modems are versatile enough to fit a wide range of monitors and meters with an appropriate telemetry connection. Other environmental equipment, apart from roadside monitors and tidal gauges, includes water quality analysers, rain gauges, ice prediction sensors, traffic level data loggers, water treatment systems, air conditioning monitors and flue gas sensors.
Another important area for zero power modems is energy management and multi-utility Automated Meter Reading. Modems fitted to water, gas or electricity meters allow organisations to monitor energy usage on a regular basis in order to streamline operations. This ensures companies remain environmentally conscious, as well as cost-efficient.
Local authorities could incorporate their own energy management programmes onto an existing telemetry network, so that as well as roadside monitoring, a network of other metering and monitoring devices can be called up as needs grow.
Plant condition monitoring is also an important area. Many organisations, particularly distribution plants, simply lack the resources to man operations at remote locations round the clock. Once again, remote monitoring offers a promising solution. Jekyll modems are often linked to PLC’s that control equipment sensor networks. Typical data that can be monitored remotely includes leak or overflow detection, fault or maintenance warnings, restocking intervals, security access and general control. Jekyll’s Pulsar Telelog is a fully featured datalogger integrated with an industrial modem. The ‘Alarm Telelog’ model in the range is able to issue SMS text warnings to a mobile phone or pager, if logged data exceeds pre-designated limits. Such a capability reduces the cost of plant monitoring operations significantly, so that operations can continue safe in the knowledge that any faults will be picked up immediately.
The above applications are only of benefit due to the ability to obtain data ‘instantly’ from remote instruments. However, instant may not be the correct description. The data will be at best a few minutes, but more likely a few hours old. A vast improvement from the days of manual data collection but still not truly instant. Usually, the larger the number of instruments from which data is collected the older the data will be. This is because of the logistics of sequentially calling each site.
The next revolution in data logging and collection will be true instantaneous access to the data. Data will no longer be minutes or hours old but will be available a matter of a few seconds after the reading was taken.
For the road side weather stations, it would be possible to display the data for all stations simultaneously and in real time. The movement of a weather system across the country could then be monitored. With analysis of speed and direction of movement forward predictions of likely future conditions at individual sites should be possible. Similarly, the storm surge forecasting should become more accurate with the ability to watch a storm develop in real time.
The Jekyll Telemodem2 Mobile is one of the few modems that can provide this GPRS communications capability either between two GPRS connected installations or one fixed line and one GPRS unit.
The recent appalling Asian tsunami provides a sad example of the benefits of real time data collection. The historical data available on the event allowed analysis of the causes in the following days. But how much better would it have been if real time data was available to warn instantly of the initial event and to predict the path of the destructive waves? Many lives would have been saved. It is true that such a monitoring system was available in the Pacific but the cost would have been too high for implementation in other areas. Modern technology is now reducing this implementation cost to make real time monitoring available in many more applications.
Accessing measured data via the web is also on the increase. With solutions such as Jekyll’s Internet Protocol technology, organisations are able to extend data access provision to a wider range of users, and ultimately demonstrate a greater level of transparency. A water authority in France is using Jekyll modem technology to achieve just that, and give itself a distinct competitive edge in the utility market.
The emerging fact is that remote telemetry, in its various shapes and forms, is here to stay. Whether communication is done over fixed lines, wireless or mobile technology, it is important for users to weigh up all the options and remain flexible. Jekyll has designed its technology to be interchangeable. This means no existing modem network is made redundant and companies can upgrade on a gradual basis as needs and budgets dictate. The key is to install the modem with the correct specification so that remote monitoring of the environment is not done at the expense of the environment.
Published: 10th Sep 2005 in AWE International