Why Are Industrial Sensors Going Wireless?

Industries are increasingly opting for low-power wireless photoelectric sensors with extended range of signals that carry for miles. Such improvements have been made possible with the proliferation of low-power micro-controllers that have boosted the range of the sensors and enhanced their battery life.

In general, wireless sensors conserve and extend battery life by switching themselves off when they are not taking measurements. This allows the sensor to spend most of its time not consuming any power. With this simple technique itself, the battery life of the sensor is boosted by a factor of 100 or more in comparison to that of a continuously powered sensor. However, as the sensor does not sense when it is off, the response time suffers.

To understand how much the battery life can be extended, consider a dry contact wireless sensor that typically dissipates about 100 to 200 µW of power. Such a sensor operates on two AA batteries, which last for five years with the dry contact wireless sensor sampling at 10 times or more every second. In comparison, a powered sensor system can remain on continuously and can respond more quickly. It is also possible to run them at higher power levels to produce a longer wireless range.

To provide reliable and interference-free communication, FHSS or Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum techniques are used in industrial wireless sensors. Basically, FHSS switches a carrier rapidly among several possible frequencies, using a pseudorandom sequence. When bound or paired devices communicate with each other, data and control packets are interchanged using these frequency channels randomly, but in a pattern known only to the communicating pair.

Typically, the bandwidth necessary for frequency hopping is much larger than that required for transmitting the same information on just one carrier frequency. However, the transmission takes place only on a small portion of the bandwidth at any given time. Since the effective bandwidth of any interfering signal is the same as that for a narrow carrier, frequency hopping greatly diminishes interference from narrowband sources. Usually, a site survey is conducted before installation of wireless sensors to determine if there is RF interference and whether this is strong enough to be a problem.

Modern wireless sensor systems have a radio master device or gateway that polls all its sensor nodes at specific intervals to ascertain radio communications are still operating. If there is no response from one of the sensors, the system reacts deterministically; the system enters a state to maintain control in a fail-safe way.

The radio master connects to multiple sensors allowing many dozens of wireless sensor nodes to work within a single radio network. Using a TDMA or Time-Division Multiple-Access technique, ensures that all the sensors in the network have adequate time to transmit their data and receive their individual instructions. This effectively eliminates the possibility of multiple sensors trying to communicate simultaneously.

One of the major advantages of using wireless sensors and indicator lights is the elimination of complex cable installation. Rearrangement can easily be done if the plant layout changes. The modern wireless sensor with its own battery, radio and sensor in a single housing, allows higher productivity with real-life status of the production line.