40 R&DMagazine June 2014 www.rdmag.com
Cutting the Cord
A variety of laboratory instruments are taking a cue from the consumer and
industrial space, leaving the Ethernet cable behind.
In the last 10 years, the presence of wireless technology has blossomed in the indus- trial and manufacturing space, where a multitude of technologies, from Bluetooth
to Zigbee to RFID, have been successfully
employed to monitor conditions of machinery, products under assembly and the
work force. These tools, which can include
machine vision cameras and sophisticated
load sensors, are increasingly adopting high-end transmitters used by expensive communications products in the consumer market.
But in the laboratory, this process, which began more than a
decade ago, has been slow to evolve. This is partly due to need. Tools
and instruments that researchers use on a regular basis are “hands-on”
and don’t need monitoring because they are constantly tweaked and
refined to accomplish research tasks.
Those that do need monitoring don’t require the level of sophistication or range because the data isn’t as time sensitive or remote. Plus, a
standards requirement rears its head. In the case of biotechnology laboratories, for example, wireless technologies must conform to both FCC- and
FDA-approved transmission protocols. Most developers stay with older
and cheaper 915-Mhz transmitters because they easily meet standards.
But wireless technology is advancing quickly. Just five years ago, IEEE
issued its 802.11n standard for multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO)
antennas, which greatly improved transmission throughput by using the
2.4-GHz or 5-GHz bands. More recently, IEEE approved the 802.11ac
standard, which doubled or quadrupled the width of the transmission
channels, expanded spatial streams, improved modulation and increased
the flexibility of MIMO antenna designs. This more than doubled data
rates to 1.3 Gbits/sec.
Few research tasks require this level of wireless capability. Most systems
are connected by Ethernet cabling, and tethered data is a far cheaper solution than a variety of expensive antennas competing for airspace in confined laboratory spaces. However, an increasing variety of instruments are
finding that, as new protocols are introduced, older 802.11b/g or 802.11n
wireless solutions make practical sense in the marketplace and add a performance edge over older antenna designs that could translate into sales.
Even better, antenna designs that conform to the 802.11ac standard
have beamforming capabilities (multi-user MIMO) that will allow a variety of similar devices to share the same airspace without interference.
Wireless in the industrial setting
To gauge the potential for wireless technologies in the laboratory, a useful
benchmark is the progress of remote communications solutions in the
manufacturing space, where high-throughput, constant repetition and
efficiencies of scale are the norm.
One of the most successful wireless strategies in the
last decade has been the radio-frequency identifica-
tion (RFID) tag. Developed to speed the process
inventory for materials, as well as elevate the secu-
rity for sensitive materials, RFID tags have spread
through a wide variety of commodity industries.
Tags are used to monitor plastics or concrete,
and are used by the U.S. Dept. of Energy to
keep an eye on nuclear materials.
Tags are capable of emitting a unique identifier
that is readable by a variety of commercial hand-
held instruments. Until recently, most tags were
powered by long-life batteries, but a host of new
battery-free sensors have entered the market.
Magneto, a battery-less RFID tag manufactured by Farsens, San
Sebastian, Spain, is equipped with a magnetometer made by ST Micro-
electronics, Coppell, Texas, that features a measurement range from ± 4
to ± 16 gauss. The tag can conform to European or U.S. communications
protocols ranging from 860 to 960 Mhz. Battery-free tags are limited to
close proximity monitoring in the industrial space, with a short 1.5-m
read limit for the Magneto and other tags. But these maintenance-free
devices could find greater adoption in the closer quarters of a research
laboratory, where some elements of process automation could be imple-
mented, or where inventories are of high volume or high sensitivity.
Other industrial solutions conform to Wi-Fi or even Bluetooth com-
munications standards. Sensor Data, Shelby Township, Mich., for exam-
ple, has launched a new type of wireless diagnostic system that provides
real-time evaluation and predictive maintenance of conveyor systems.
Measurements include tensile force, horizontal bending moment, verti-
cal bending moment and twisting moment. Entirely self-contained with
rechargeable batteries, the Model M411-106-10K communicates via a
standard 915-MHz transmitter to a remote base station. More recent ver-
sions of this product are available with a 2.4-GHz Bluetooth base station
to provide even better communications.
At the high end of the industrial space are the instruments that operate at
2. 4 GHz. Straightpoint’s Radiolink Plus is a digital dynamometer designed
for load monitoring and use with heavy lifts that handle from 1 to 2,000
tons. This device can be used on ships to measure anchor and mooring load
settings, on escalators to gauge comb impact and in the aerospace industry
to test repairs. For this reason, Straighpoint, Camarillo, Calif., has developed
a proprietary 2.4-GHz transmitter that conforms to the latest Wi-Fi proto-
(Top) Wireless monitoring solutions like isensix’s
Guardian are a common sight on refrigerators and
incubators because they allow researchers to track
environmental conditions. (Bottom) TandD Corp.’s
line of environmental condition monitors use Wi-Fi to
read current data directly into cloud-based storage
for access any time, any place.