IIOT sensors need protection in harsh environments

IIOTProtecting and maintaining IIOT sensors is set to be one of the biggest engineering challenges of the next decade, says Dr Christopher Cogswell, Customer Consultant, Elsevier (US Corporate Midwest and Southeast)

One of the biggest trends of the last decade has been the phenomenal growth in the number of connected devices in existence. Analysts IDC predict that by 2022, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will be worth around $1tn as more and more sensors come online. Many of these sensors are connected in relatively benign conditions but, as prices for devices and radio technology keep falling, we’re increasingly seeing devices being deployed in extreme environments such as outer space, deserts and the deep sea.

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The IIoT has the potential to be a goldmine of scientific insight. These sensors could provide incredibly valuable data on everything from geology to meteorology, helping us deal with challenges from climate change to natural disasters. Yet, however wide the network and however high the number of sensors connected, the IIoT will only be useful if the sensors are working and able to transmit data. Protecting and maintaining these sensors is, therefore, set to be one of the biggest engineering challenges of the next decade.

IIoT sensors are currently being designed to endure some of the toughest conditions on Earth and even beyond. Each environment poses its own challenges, requiring engineers to consider a multitude of factors when trying to make sure sensors remain operational. For example:

  • Outer space – Being able to monitor weather systems from outer space is one of the best ways to gather large scale climate data at speed. However, when sending sensors into the outer atmosphere, precision becomes vitally important. The difference of even a micron thickness in the coating can cause problems which result in breaches and corrosion of the underlying substrate.
  • Desert – With solar technology continuing to improve, IIoT sensors are becoming increasingly vital to desert-based solar plants. But sensors in the desert are not only subject to wild temperature fluctuations of up to 65°C, they also need to be able to resist sandstorms with winds of up to 80mph.
  • Deep sea – We know less about the ocean floor than we do the moon, but new battery-free sensors are already being deployed to try and change that fact. Yet exploring the seabed involves figuring out ways to handle crushing pressure, as well as protecting against the corrosive effects of saltwater.

These scenarios involve exposing sensors to harsh conditions with myriad changing factors like humidity, temperature, and sunlight which need to be considered and guarded against. Such considerations are particularly important when looking at the knock-on impact of a corroded sensor going offline. Luckily, engineers have thousands of possible anti-corrosion options at their disposal, ensuring that sensors can be protected in almost any environment; by 2024 the market for anti-corrosion coatings alone is expected to be worth nearly $25bn.

However, choosing the correct coating and thickness is a demanding task – particularly as research is constantly providing new information about these environments, as well as novel data about the materials. With so many factors and options to consider, engineers cannot reasonably be expected to know the best choice in every possible scenario.

If the IIoT is to meet its potential, engineers need to be given the tools to help them properly protect sensors from damage in any environment – this means not only having access to the relevant geological and meteorological information about a given environment but also the latest research on anti-corrosion options that best match the conditions. This then needs to be matched with a database which can provide up-to-date information on everything from the physical properties of chemicals and polymers, to toxicology and scientific literature.

Additionally, as engineers don’t have the time to wade through reams of data, they need tools which can search and aggregate it before providing analytically useful insights. Crucially, these tools need to be available and able to present information easily on mobile devices.

The growth of the IIoT could hugely improve our scientific knowledge and provide life-saving information. However, these benefits are only going to be realised if sensors are protected and, as the environments sensors are deployed in get more extreme, this will become a bigger challenge than ever.

Dr. Christopher Cogswell is Customer Consultant for Elsevier (US Corporate Midwest and Southeast)