Communications Going Wireless

By Greg Sitek | September 28, 2010

Rapid advances in wireless technology are opening the door to new applications for equipment controls, monitoring and management.

Contrary to popular belief wireless communication is not new; in fact it is hundred of years old having its foundation in South Africa. Mankind has always had the need to communicate over long distances, distances farther than the human voice could reach. The original need was probably as a warning of approaching danger. If you ever watched an old Tarzan movie or an old Western you recall the "talking drums" sending messages across miles of jungle or desert as the case would happen to be. Drums could send messages across great distances but had a lot of limitations and not everyone could understand the language of drums.

The need to communicate across great distances has not gone away, it's become more pressing. One of the principle reasons is still as a warning of an approaching danger of sorts. Cellular phones are the most obvious form of today's wireless communications but are not the only thing available. There are now a bunch of smart phones and PDAs like the BlackBerry, Palm Treo, Motorola Q, and those offered by the other phone manufacturers. These devices do give you a link to the Internet and provide you with a way of reading and answering e-mail, surfing the Internet and other similar activities.

WiFi opens the door to a new level of wireless communication. "Wi-Fi (also WiFi, wifi, etc.) is a brand originally licensed by the Wi-Fi Alliance® to describe the underlying technology of wireless local area networks (WLAN) based on the IEEE 802.11 specifications. It was developed to be used for mobile computing devices, such as laptops, in LANs, but is now increasingly used for more services, including Internet and VoIP phone access, gaming, and basic connectivity of consumer electronics such as televisions and DVD players, or digital cameras. More standards are in development that will allow Wi-Fi to be used by cars in highways in support of an Intelligent Transportation System to increase safety, gather statistics and enable mobile commerce (see IEEE 802.11p). Wi-Fi® and the Wi-Fi CERTIFIED™ logo are registered trademarks of the Wi-Fi Alliance® — the trade organization that tests and certifies equipment compliance with the 802.11x standards." (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

WiFi has other limitations in that your provider may not have an affiliation with the "hot spots" you are near. Also the signal strength will vary depending on your location and the number of other users in the immediate area. It is a step in the right direction but the range of the hot spots has to be greater than it currently is.

Air cards are another serious development in the evolution of wireless technology because they give your laptop wireless capabilities like a PDA. Air cards are PC cards which are for notebooks, not PDAs. They have cellular data modems inside and are used to access the Internet and VPNs using the carrier's wireless connection and service. They are like WiFi, only available anywhere that the carrier has service, rather than being limited to a WiFi HotSpot's 100-foot range. So you can use your computer, when equipped with an air card, much like you use a cell phone, i.e. in your car, on the job site, in buildings, and not have to tie it in to an Ethernet cable. The major providers of air cards are: T-Mobile ($49/month), Sprint ($59/month), Cingular ($79/month), and Verizon ($79/month). Please note the prices noted are not cast in concrete and only offered as a guide. You will need to check with the provider in your area for package prices. Also note that these are not the only air card providers. There are dozens of others that offer the same type of service. Before settling on one it is in your best interest to do some research and shopping. People who use the service say that it is dependable, reliable and as fast as or faster than typical DSL or cable modem Internet connection.

This type of technology is making it possible to bring your office to your pickup and the job site and more important it is providing manufacturers and suppliers ways of helping you get more out of your equipment through things like machine control system, GPS guidance systems and remote equipment monitoring systems.

Some of the things that are happening in the industry are:

Bobcat recently entered into an alliance with QUALCOMM to endorse the company's telematics (wireless machine-monitoring systems) for use on its equipment GlobalTRACS collects and transmits information about equipment operating status and location, which can then be accessed via the Internet or integrated into customers' existing management software. Customers will have the option to purchase GlobalTRACS through Bobcat dealers on the full line of compact equipment.

Caterpillar recently introduced improved hardware and an all-new architecture for Product Link, a management tool that allows customers to collect and track multiple types of information about their assets — from machine location and service meter hours to health and productivity information. Product Link gathers data from a machine's on-board systems and transmits it wirelessly to Caterpillar's network operations center. Information is then delivered to a customer's desktop through the Dealer Storefront via Caterpillar's online application, Cat® EquipmentManager. With fast, easy access to machine information, earthmoving equipment owners can optimize asset utilization, reduce security risks, improve maintenance management, and implement before-failure repair strategies. The result is more uptime, lower operating costs and a higher overall return on the equipment investment.

The new Product Link architecture features a modular design that includes a satellite communicator and a separate electronic control module. Equipment owners who require basic asset management information, such as machine operating hours and location, can use a stand-alone module. Those who want access to additional machine health and productivity information need both components, which are available as a complete package.

Caterpillar is implementing new technology on several of its control and guidance products to provide customer access to a broader range of GPS positioning frequencies. Caterpillar is providing this technology to take advantage of recent enhancements to the US NAVSTAR GPS system, as well as Russia's renewed commitment and improvements to their GLONASS satellite constellation. This broader range of positioning frequencies will allow Caterpillar products, such as AccuGrade™, CAES, and Aquila Drill and Dragline Systems, to use the US NAVSTAR GPS system L5 and L2C frequencies as well as the Russian GLONASS G1 and G2 signals. Access to both satellite constellations further demonstrates Caterpillar's commitment to provide users with the greatest uptime and availability.

Those working in areas where line of sight to the sky is difficult, such as in dense tree-lined areas, urban sites encircled by tall buildings and deep pit mining sites, will witness improved uptime and capabilities. Customers worldwide will see increased signal strength, better signal acquisition and retention, improved initialization time, and overall, more robust performance in difficult environments.

John Deere Construction & Forestry Company offers equipment that ships from the factory with hardware, software and wiring integrated and ready to support the use of global positioning systems (GPS) or laser guidance systems.

John Deere is working under separate development agreements with two of the leading suppliers of GPS and laser-based guidance systems in the construction market to develop this technology for crawlers, graders and other machines. With an open architecture approach, the mobile construction equipment will operate software from aftermarket guidance systems and enable control through an electrical interface.

The electrical connection provides improved performance over hydraulic interfaces. Because the hydraulic system is tuned for the specific machine, response is faster. This electrical connection will use an industry standard communication code to enable other providers to develop additional products to attach to John Deere construction equipment. This new system uses an onboard PC that is integrated into the existing machine monitor. This feature provides a larger screen for the guidance data and eliminates the need for an additional monitor, avoiding blind spots that block the operator's line of sight.

Komatsu has committed to making its wireless machine-information system, KOMTRAX, standard equipment on every one of its construction machines "at either model change or Tier 3 engine change, whichever occurs first," says Komatsu America's Chris Wasik. KOMTRAX uses the GPS to identify the host-machine's location, and interfaces with the machine's on-board computer to track engine-run hours, error codes and cautions, maintenance items, fuel levels, and more information. Critical data are transmitted via digital cellular signals to a secure website that dealers and customers can access with a password. Machines with standard KOMTRAX come with five years of free communication.

Komatsu first introduced KOMTRAX several years ago as an option buyers could have installed on Komatsu equipment. That first generation provided three basic pieces of information — machine location, service meter readings, and daily hours of operation.

In comparison, the new KOMTRAX is standard equipment on almost all new Komatsu machines and reports on all aspects of machine operation. In addition to location, meter readings and daily operation, available information from the new, advanced KOMTRAX includes: *

  • Cautions,
  • Error codes,
  • Load frequencies,
  • Notification of maintenance,
  • Average hourly fuel consumption,
  • Fuel level and water temperature readings,
  • Geofencing and engine lock (theft prevention),
  • Monthly and annual reports.

* Features are dependent on machine model.

KOMTRAX also maintains a complete and accurate record of a machine's life history, which can significantly increase the trade-in or resale value of the unit. KOMTRAX can be installed in any piece of equipment using a 12-volt or 24-volt electrical system, including service trucks and utility machines. Additionally, KOMTRAX is available as a retrofit for older machines or non-Komatsu equipment.

The vShepherd systems from Asset Tracking Services (ATS) combine the power of GPS locating technology with wireless communication and the Internet. The vShepherd FleetReach family of reporting modules now includes Preventive Maintenance, which provides color-coded warnings that prioritize units requiring attention, lists the last location of any unit and provides a map feature for coordinating the service of multiple units. Standard vShepherd modules provide on-demand location via the Internet and allow activating a theft-deterrent "vFence" via the Internet or from a telephone. Most stolen assets, says ATS, are recovered in less than an hour after the vFence alarm is reported to the Alarm Center.

The D1000 digital tracking system combines GPS technology with digital wireless communication to provide real-time locating and tracking capabilities. By sending vehicle information through wireless channels, says the company, information transfer is more reliable and more readily available. The system is designed to gather a variety of information about vehicles in the fleet, including location, speed, stops, engine off/on, engine temperature, and other vehicle functions. At frequent, specified intervals, the system transmits data to the user's PC using the company's Eye In The Sky software.

Qualcomm GlobalTRACS automatically collects, organizes and transmits information that tells fleet managers where construction equipment is located and also sends back critical machine health data. GPS-based location information shows where equipment is located and geo-fence alerts automatically notify fleet managers of any equipment movement outside pre-set boundaries. Designed for use by equipment distributors, rental companies and end-users, the GlobalTRACS system can provide up-to-the-minute engine hours data that show when the equipment is running or when it isn't.

Release 3.0 of GlobalTRACS equipment management solution monitors equipment's component health through the use of up to four configurable sensors. It can be fit to any equipment type or brand to wirelessly track engine hours and location. The hardware and support systems automatically collect, organize and transmit vital information about where, when and how equipment is being used, and deliver the information via the Internet or directly to customers' management software.

DPL Group SkyHawk Vehicle Tracking System allows managers to track over-the-road fleets from an Internet-based software package. It wirelessly reports vehicle activity, location and other operational data. SkyHawk is managed from the same Internet software as the Titan Equipment Monitoring System, giving managers an integrated solution for real time, side-by-side mapping and management of on- and off-road fleets.

Orbcomm uses low-earth orbit and satellites to provide tracking, monitoring and messaging capabilities to and from anywhere in the world. Similar to two-way paging or e-mail, the system is capable of sending and receiving two-way alphanumeric packages of data. The system is designed for such applications as tracking and monitoring vehicles, truck, trailer, and cargo locations; tracking operating conditions of vehicles and trailers, including temperature alarms, open doors and full/empty conditions; and tracking, monitoring and reporting engine diagnostics.

Trimble The Construction Manager wireless solution uses GPS technology to locate and manage assets at sites via Nextel handheld phones. It also provides in-vehicle devices to optimize asset utilization and productivity of mobile assets. Users can download maps and site designs to their Nextel phones. Jobsite boundaries can be sent to the phone so that site managers are notified if a worker enters a hazardous or unsafe zone. The product uses one interface for both the handheld and in-vehicle components, allowing users to manage all assets from one software interface.

Titan Equipment Monitoring System prevents theft by a nightly curfew, which immobilizes the machine and sets several silent alarms that notify end-users immediately when tripped. GPS delivers real-time locating capabilities from any Internet-connected computer. The system wirelessly reports hour meter and asset location that helps reduce maintenance costs, provides more accurate billing and increases fleet utilization.

OEM Data Delivery ST-500 radio service tracker transmits hours and service alerts via radio frequency to an on-site tower that interfaces with PDA handheld collectors or directly to a computer. Continuous operation of the unit does not interrupt machine operation. The unit can be used with PDA programs that capture fuel, repair, inspection, project, and task data.

Topcon — A number of GPS machine control systems, including Milimeter GPS, are being used by a number of equipment manufacturers such as Komatsu, Deere and Case. Topcon's site management software puts the contractor in control of the job site from the home office as well as the site trailer. Three-dimensional site layouts can be transferred to the office for better jobsite management.