Wireless waits on standards

Source: PlantServices.com

By Ken Schnepf, managing editor

Nov 01, 2006

The first draft of the much anticipated wireless communication standards for industrial monitoring and control are due to be issued by the ISA-SP100 Wireless Systems for Automation Committee in 2007. Manufacturers are expected to build wireless devices immediately to the standards. Following likely modifications, the draft is to become an official standard in 2008.

Thus far, the biggest obstacles to companies going to wide-scale use of wireless devices have been safety and security. A forum held October 18 at ISA Expo 2006 in Houston addressed those obstacles and other issues.

“The reality is we are at the beginning of the curve like the 300k modem was,” explains forum panelist Tom Phinney of Honeywell. “We are the bacterium on the flea on the tail of the dog.”

It isn’t practical to continue to hold off adopting the technology, according to Phinney. Whatever security measures are adopted, he says they had better be able to work with today’s computers as well as the PCs of 10 or 20 years from now.

“In my opinion, we have enough experience and knowledge to produce systems to protect against well-funded attackers,” says Phinney. “I don’t see security as an inherently constraining issue for wireless.”

Interest in using wireless devices as well as the availability of products are there, according to an ISA spring 2006 member survey about wireless market development. The survey results show that 64% of the exhibitors at the ISA Expo have some sort of wireless device available for purchase. Further, 69% of the survey respondents say security is the main barrier to deciding to use the devices, says forum moderator Dr. Peter Fuhr of Apprion Inc.

Some companies have as many as 10,000 devices per facility that could go to wireless, according to the survey. Categories of wireless devices the respondents have a strong interest in are Wifi, 21%; proprietary solutions, 11.2%; RFID, 4%; satellite, 3.1%; cellular, 1.8%; Zigbee, 1.8%; and 802.z, 0.8%.  “We want to make sure all these things work together,” Fuhr says.

“Security certainly is the biggest concern,” says panelist Hesh Kagan of Invensys. “It’s not a question of whether the encryption logarithm is strong enough or if the procedures exist. It goes beyond the technology of encryption, bits and bytes.”

Currently, the standards are incomplete or conflicting, so people are inclined to hold off and wait, says Kagan. Others rationalize that, because the technology changes so rapidly, there’s no point in buying now when, in two or three months, the new products available will be so much better. The business model to show when it makes sense to adopt the technology needs to be considered.

“Maybe you don’t buy it,” Kagan says. “You rent it or deploy it as a managed service.”

If wireless devices can be deployed for a measurement, a number of applications that haven’t been thought of yet will develop rapidly, according to panelist Greg LaFramboise of Chevron. Hazardous environments require self-contained, battery-operated instruments. Perhaps temporary wireless devices are the answer for some applications.

“The technology to make wireless technology secure already exists,” says Jose Gutierrez of Emerson Electric, forum panelists. “It’s about securing every level (layer) of security.”

Public FBI reports show how hackers behave and how data hacking is performed. “They don’t tend to be too savvy about the latest modulation,” says Gutierrez. Proven, open security architecture is the key, not the latest available. It’s also a question of how much you want to pay for security.

“There are two emotional responses — fear and don’t worry, be happy,” says panelist Herman Storey of Shell Global Solutions. “Both are equally dangerous. Worry has to be accompanied by rational thought.”

Remote facilities like tank farms, mobile applications and rail cars are good candidates for wireless devices. However, upstream locations that are outdoors and accessible aren’t practical because the devices stand a chance of being stolen, explains Storey.

“What’s holding us back?” says Storey. “Technology is evolving.  We haven’t written the standards, the products are released before the standards are developed. We need a mechanism for safety and security.”

The ISA-SP100 Committee is working to establish standards, recommended practices, technical reports and related information to define procedures for implementing wireless systems in the automation and control environment with a focus on the field level (Level 0). Guidance is directed toward those responsible for the complete life cycle including designing, implementing, ongoing maintenance, scalability or managing manufacturing and control systems, and shall apply to users, system integrators, practitioners, and control systems manufacturers and vendors.

The Committee’s focus is to improve the confidence, integrity and availability of components or systems and provide criteria for procuring and implementing wireless technology in the control system environment..

“The idea of the SP100 Committee is to use several mitigations, not just one,” explains Phinney.

More information about the committee is available at www.isa.org/community/sp100/. Information about the Wireless Networking Alliance can be found at www.wina.org.