Thursday, April 16, 2015

Internet of Things on the High Seas

In the beginning of March I travelled to Gibraltar to board a LNG tanker. My task was installation of temperature sensors in the engine room so that key parameters could be monitored remotely, via satellite link wherever the ship is sailing.

A LNG tanker is a tanker for Liquid Natural Gas, the fossil fuel of the future. Not only is LNG a key ingredient in industrial processes and an important energy source - new regulations are also helping LNG becoming an important fuel for ships in order to reduce the pollution profile of international shipping.

On a LNG tanker the cargo is also used as fuel for propulsion. Although the cargo is kept liquid at the boiling point of the gas (-161 degrees Celsius), there is always some liquid that turns into gas, and this gas is used for energy production. The alternative could be to have separate fuel and use energy to convert the gas back to liquid, but that is both more complicated and more expensive.

Anyway, the development of LNG based propulsion in general and LNG tankers in particular is eager to understand how the energy in the gas is converted to useful work or wasted as heat. Traditional installation of temperature sensors rely on electrical wring. This can be both costly and time consuming. Therefore wireless technology can be very interesting, but a wireless sensor network can meet significant technical challenges deep inside a metal ship.

But the installation was successful - everything worked (and works) fine. In addition to making the temperatures available remotely, the information is also available in the vessel’s control room. This way it will no longer be needed for a member of the crew to walk around to take readings at each sensor.

The "Internet of Things" (IoT) is a popular technology topic nowadays. Many hobbyists are experimenting with instrumenting their homes, semiconductor companies are developing new and better components, and traditional industry are joining the IoT bandwagon. Compared to the popular image of IoT the size of the sensor and the transmitter in the picture may seem bulky. But this equipment is meant for an industrialized environment with high temperatures and vibration, so good packaging certainly seems to be a good idea!

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