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11 Myths About Smart Utilities IoT and Antenna Strategies

Oct. 22, 2021
Laird Connectivity’s Paul Fadlovich discusses this fast-growing category of IoT and provides practical advice about antenna strategies for these design projects.

This article appeared in Electronic Design and has been published here with permission.

What you’ll learn:

  • How smart utilities are expanding beyond residential use cases and into the industrial IoT sector.
  • The importance of developing antenna design strategies, from selection to device certifications.
  • Be wary of antenna specifications when it comes to dealing with tough environments.

The utilities sector is one of the fastest-growing adopters of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, with hundreds of millions of wireless devices being deployed to support multiple areas of operations for electrical utilities, municipal water entities, and natural gas providers. These smart utilities applications have tremendous diversity, which presents many complex decisions to engineering teams, including significant challenges for connectivity that require a sophisticated antenna strategy.

1. Utilities are old-guard industries that will be slow to adopt new technologies like IoT.

Utilities have moved way ahead of the curve on IoT compared to other industries. In the most recent comprehensive report by Gartner, their research team predicted that utilities would have a total of 1.37 billion IoT endpoints (aka communication devices) by the end of last year, with aggressive growth predicted for the coming years.

Utilities are perceived as being slower adopters of new technology. However, the number of use cases and pain points for utility operations has been a huge driver for deployments where these new wireless technologies complement and augment the existing infrastructure utilities have in place.

2. Smart utilities IoT is largely focused on smart meters and smart thermostats.

Residential use cases tend to capture most of the attention when it comes to utilities IoT, but there’s actually a long list of other use cases that go well beyond automated meter reading and smart thermostats in people’s homes. That includes industrial IoT (IIoT) deployments in electrical generation plants and water treatment facilities. It includes IoT networks for transmission lines and pipes. And it includes vehicular IoT for fleets, and other kinds of IoT deployments in numerous other complex areas of operations such as underground.

When you look at all of those collectively, it becomes clear that IoT is creating a massive digital infrastructure across nearly every aspect of a utility’s operations.

3. IoT design projects for utilities tend to be concentrated on those residential devices, which are relatively straightforward Wi-Fi/Bluetooth design projects.

Those kinds of devices are definitely an important category of projects that engineering teams will work on, but smart utilities applications go far beyond that. Your team will need to be proficient in industrial IoT projects for challenging RF environments like water treatment plants and generation plants. You also will need to successfully navigate the connectivity and RF challenges of outdoor implementations on towers and poles. And much more.

Smart utilities projects encompass every kind of IoT design project, which is a big part of what makes it challenging and fascinating. That variety of use cases, the range of RF environments, and the number of technologies involved also make antenna strategies such a critical factor. Engineering teams need to have different antenna strategies depending on the individual utility project.

4. The biggest antenna challenge will be all of the certifications required for the residential devices.

Certification is definitely important. Engineering teams should think hard about certification early in their design projects to avoid delays and unnecessary costs later in the design process. Pre-certified modules and antennas can dramatically simplify that process and ensure success, but there are far more vexing antenna decisions in smart utilities. For example, environmental factors that distort RF dynamics in some use cases, like antennas in the presence of large metal structures in distribution networks, can present complex decisions about antenna selection and placement.

5. Smart utilities projects may have a higher volume of endpoints because of the geographic scale of utilities deployments, but the antenna process is similar to other projects our team has worked on.

It’s true that what you have learned on other projects will prove very useful for utilities-related IoT. Still, the variety and RF complexity of smart utilities applications will be the equivalent of a senior thesis that draws on everything you’ve done previously while also challenging you in ways that may be new.

Antenna selection is a perfect example. You may have a project that utilizes familiar elements like a combination of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but the RF dynamics of the utilities implementation site may require an antenna that can perform adjacent to thick concrete walls or nearby metal machinery. As another example, the IoT project at hand may involve a local network of Bluetooth-connected devices, which will be very familiar to you, but the implementation site is geographically located in an area where a cellular or LoRaWAN solution might be the only practical option for backhaul.

6. My antenna strategy will be very similar to other IIoT projects my team has done.

Your IIoT experience will be very valuable for smart utilities projects, but this vertical industry will throw you unexpected curveballs. IoT for utilities’ large vehicular fleets is a great example of that. Electrical, gas, and water utilities have large fleets of specialized vehicles that must operate as mobile communications hubs for crews. They also must be equipped with all of the wireless technologies that are embedded into the IoT deployments being rolled out, so that workers can access and utilize real-time data relevant to their field work.

Antenna selection and placement is notoriously complex for vehicles because the RF dynamics are so different from model to model of even similar-looking vehicles. Two vehicles may look the same, but if one was designed with a metal roof and the other has a fiberglass roof, the RF dynamics will likely be dramatically different in ways that require very different antennas and installation locations on the vehicle body. For those reasons, it’s important to conduct RF modeling, seek expert support about antenna selection and installation, and then conduct extensive testing before large-scale rollout to entire fleets.

7. Water ingress from rain is the biggest threat to IoT deployments located outdoors for these projects.

That’s a major concern, but it’s important to broaden the list of threats so that enough of a failsafe is designed into those devices, including the ruggedness of the antenna and quality of the antenna assembly. Water ingress from rain is a big one, but other forms of ice may create even bigger threats.

Sleet or snow that potentially builds up into a shell around the casing should be accounted for when picking antennas to ensure performance even during winter weather. Ice build-up on antennas may not only affect performance, but also damage the physical bonds between the antenna’s radome and connectors from increased weight and wind loading.

Toughness of the outer casing/radome also is important for protecting the device from pecking birds or curious squirrels. All of this may mean you need an antenna that not only has strong RF performance but also strong mechanical build qualities.

8. The antennas on my short list are all labeled as “rugged,” so we’ll be in good shape against those conditions.

Unfortunately, the term “rugged” is overused in the antenna industry without consistent standards for how well a solution will stand up to tough environmental conditions. For that reason, it’s best to be skeptical of those labels and to work with your antenna partner to pick an antenna that’s well-suited to the specific conditions you expect in a given implementation site. Be sure to also look for warranties that are long enough to demonstrate the manufacturer truly stands behind the ruggedness it’s claiming. These devices need to be built to last, and the antenna can’t be the weak link in the chain.

9. The antennas I’m looking at have exactly the performance I’m looking for. The datasheet said so.

It would be incredibly helpful if the performance metrics in the real world matched what’s listed in datasheets, but that’s often not the case. The gap between what’s on the page and what you see in the field can often be very wide, which is why you need to be skeptical about those numbers, particularly for key metrics like gain. Those specs for gain can be quoted as max gain, which may be deceptively high but not pointing in a useful direction for the given applications.

The reason for the gap is simple: Those datasheets are based on testing in lab environments that are often so idealized that they no longer reflect an actual implementation site, where other RF signals, concrete walls, plastic device casings and many other factors impact performance. To ensure the antenna you implement performs as needed, your team should take the datasheets with a grain of salt, conduct extensive testing in conditions similar to the real-world implementation, and make final selection and installation decisions based on that information.

10. I have always used off-the-shelf antennas. Those will definitely meet my needs.

There are thousands of off-the-shelf antenna options, so chances are good that you can find one meeting your needs—particularly if you work with an antenna partner who can help you look deeper than the datasheets. But some utilities IoT projects have such unique needs—often because of the RF environment and combination of technologies required—that a custom antenna might be the best, or even the only, solution because it avoids the compromises of off-the-shelf options.

11. Will all of these IoT projects for utilities lower my electricity bill? My teenagers are driving my power bill through the roof with all of their devices.

I can’t promise that, but these IoT projects are increasing safety for utilities workers, helping utilities manage spikes in demand that enable the rollout of more renewable energy assets. So, you may not see a lower bill, but this is building a foundation for next-generation utilities operations that hopefully helps us consume energy and water in more sustainable ways.

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