Smart Utilities – Finding the Right Antenna for Every Application

Fri, 02/19/2021 - 13:39

Better, More Efficient Utilities, Brought to You Through Connectivity

Utility providers are in the business of generating and moving truly massive quantities of their product to millions of customers across a variety of facilities for creation, storage, treatment, and distribution. When you’re moving that much product, even small inefficiencies, faults and leakages in your grid can have huge costs. Downed electrical equipment and leaking pipes introduce not just the expense of lost product, maintenance and repairs, but also increased risk.  Across a massive distribution infrastructure, that down time can take on an outsized portion of utilities’ bottom line.

IoT and smart sensor applications have never been more available or more cost-effective, providing a deep awareness of every part of the utility network that can’t be matched by human monitoring. When utilities invest in their equipment with scalable, real-time sensing and monitoring hardware, the result is reduced risk, higher returns on investments, less waste, more efficient operation, and happier customers.

Investing in smarter infrastructure for utilities is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s critical to staying competitive and automating the kinds of decisions that yield big efficiencies. In electrical, gas, water, and even smart city applications, data that is hidden in plain sight is the difference between having to fix a problem and preventing one in the first place

Though the subcomponents of utilities like electric, water, and gas are very different, they can be thought of as breaking down into similar zones or domains: Generation, distribution, and consumption. For each, there are distinct considerations. Generation is centralized to large facilities. Distribution often covers long, remote spans of hardware like power lines and pipelines. Power consumption happens at large distances from the utility generation, but often at many points that are clustered together. All of these characteristics have implications for the best suited wireless or wired technologies for sensor data.

These three zones of the utility chain are distinct in scale and scope, with their own unique circumstances and topologies, and they are best served by differing technologies, antenna types, and other wireless considerations.

Generation: Large, Connected Facilities and Blanket Coverage

Characteristics at the utility generation domain are relatively unique in the connected grid. Because they’re large, centralized facilities with access to wired internet, the self-contained and easy-to-deploy nature of Wi-Fi makes a good protocol for wireless coverage. Because Wi-Fi is easy to connect to hardwired ethernet, covers large areas well, and doesn’t require a third party or data subscription costs like those found in cellular, it’s both cost-effective and dense in terms of signal coverage.

Laird Connectivity provides many antennas both for Wi-Fi infrastructure and for the client sensors themselves which are robust and reliable, even in challenging RF environments. For large facilities, our wide range of directional antennas, omnidirectional antennas, and multiport MIMO antennas can provide various patterns of coverage to sensors built into various machines. And for the sensor units themselves, we provide dipole antennas with a wide range of connectors, often with IP67 rating, which resist the environmental water and dust hazards associated with industrial environments.

Whether in production facilities or in storage and refinement facilities, Wi-Fi is often the broadest coverage at the lowest cost to a utility provider. And our engineered Wi-Fi antenna solutions provide reliable connectivity in challenging deployments where failure is not an option.

Additionally, utility providers can take advantage of newly-available CBRS spectrum to achieve the same plug-and-play simplicity of Wi-Fi in the cellular spectrum. CBRS allows businesses to establish their own self-contained, fully independent LTE applications without utilizing a carrier’s infrastructure, which means all the range and power of LTE without the data costs. For example, a control station can receive sensor data from downline distribution and consumption nodes, aggregate that data in the cloud, and make adjustments to production and distribution, all over a CBRS connection. Our CBRS antennas, including those for CBRS infrastructure and vehicular mount, provide utilities with many options to connect to their own privately owned and maintained LTE network for data collection and actionable intelligence.

Distribution: Remote, Beyond Line of Sight, and Vulnerable to Failures

In utilities, the vast footprint of operations is tied up in the distribution of the product. This includes water, gas, and electric lines that run for miles and miles, sometimes in large mains and sometimes in lower capacity distribution-side cabling and pipes. This distribution network covers huge distances, sometimes in very remote locations. For that reason, when there’s a failure, it’s often not easy to spot, or may be underground where it’s unnoticed. Worse, it can inflict significant property damage and loss before it’s ever noticed, identified, and repaired.

Monitoring which relies on human deployment and observation is at a loss here; providing full-time watch over the countless miles of distribution equipment is simply not possible. It also puts utility employees in harm’s way and adds unnecessary costs to operations. Smart sensors that measure the flow of water, gas, and electricity across the distribution grid provide a previously impossible alternative, rapidly detecting and flagging issues or failures along the route from generation and storage to the consumer endpoint. This means that failures which may have taken hours or days to identify can be indicated almost instantly. Sharp drop-offs in electric current or fluid capacity along the distribution lines can be flagged for the utility provider and dramatically increase response time for repair technicians.

In these remote areas, long-range wireless like LTE or LoRaWAN can provide reliable, low-latency connectivity where other means of internet access are inaccessible. For those willing to leverage a third-party data subscription, LTE provides a widely available infrastructure for wireless sensors. We provide omnidirectional baton antennas such as the OC Series, suitable for mounting on above-ground poles with UV-stable IP67 enclosures that resist the elements and last years in the field without degradation. Our Phantom and multi-port antennas are low-profile, precision engineered and rugged antennas that support multiple protocols, supplementing LTE with UHF, VHF, LoRaWAN, and more in a single enclosure. Their low-profile form factor is perfect for mounting on service boxes, meters, and vehicles, where maximum durability is a necessity.  

Consumption: Remote or Clustered, a High Volume of Data Points

Smart utility meters provide a crucial endpoint for the IoT-enabled utility, logging individual consumption at the consumer level and introducing another series of design possibilities. In large neighborhoods or other areas with lots of collocated meters, hundreds or thousands of meters sit within range of a central point where a gateway can collect usage data for billing purposes, as well as identifying usage spikes at peak consumption times. Real-time monitoring can provide crucial information to a supplier about where demand is increasing and what that might mean for production needs upstream. Access to up-to-the-minute information about localized consumption can help utilities in the production and distribution of electric, gas, water, and channel resources to where they’re needed the most.

These metering endpoints are often in close proximity to internet access, such as in homes and businesses. However, utility providers likely do not have connection to that internet access. This is why antennas and gateways which blanket a large area, such as our RG191 LoRaWAN+LTE gateway, may be the most helpful. A dual-protocol solution can collect data directly over one standard (such as LoRaWAN), and then channel the collected sensor data over another standard to the network (such as LTE). This means each individual smart meter doesn’t need its own LTE modem and data package, but rather communicates over the utility-owned LoRaWAN network to the gateway, where the data is funnelled over a single LTE connection up to the cloud. A multi-protocol solution achieves long-ranges, wide coverage, and a highly efficient route to the cloud for hundreds or thousands of sensors per gateway.

Laird Connectivity again provides multiple antenna types for these applications. For installation in new products or retrofitting to existing meters, our embedded peel-and-stick Revie Flex antennas provide connectivity in confined enclosures with curved surfaces. They’re easy to integrate, provide wide frequency coverage, and are available highly customized with various connectors and cable lengths. They’re perfect for mounting inside the rounded dome of a utility meter, even in cramped, small enclosures.

Omnidirectional or directional outdoor antennas (including panel and yagi antennas) can be mounted at high elevation to provide a data aggregation connection to whole blocks of utility meters. They provide various strengths for the demands of each application, including the exceptional gain of directional Yagi antennas which can provide a more reliable link in a single direction and orientation. In areas where meters are more linear and less clustered, like along lengthy rural routes, a high gain directional Yagi antenna can provide large coverage areas from a single collection point.

The Big Picture – Efficiencies at Every Level

The Smart Utility use case is built out of these smaller, localized parts, and enables utility providers to achieve efficiencies and business objectives that were previously difficult or impossible. The IoT is about automation through actionable, real-time data, all of which is built on reliable, durable wireless connection that persists in challenging conditions. Laird Connectivity is a trusted wireless partner with the portfolio that meets this critical business challenge. Where connectivity is critical, our best-in-industry portfolio and expertise excels.

We’re THE antenna authority, with nearly four decades in wireless design. Our expertise and experience has allowed us to create custom antenna solutions with the following capabilities:

  • Antenna Design, Simulation and Prototyping
  • Testing and 3D Pattern Provision
  • EMC/FCC Compliance Certification
  • Low-Cost In-House Manufacturing in the USA and Malaysia

Reach out to our experts to find the wireless products that can bring deep, actionable intelligence to your smart grid solutions.

Learn more about Smart Utilities here.