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Cellular IoT and Short Range Wireless Tech is Helping Farmers, Fleet Managers and Consumers Monitor Tank Levels to Prevent Disruptive Shortages

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by Nordic Semiconductor

Europe’s largest farm is an arable holding in Romania which at 570 square kilometers is roughly the same size as Singapore. Impressive certainly, but there’s big and then there’s enormous. The five largest farms in the world are located in China and Australia and between them cover 190,000 square kilometers, dwarfing their European counterparts. The largest, the Mudanjiang City Mega Farm in Heilongjiang, China, sprawls across 90,000 square kilometers and is home to some 100,000 dairy cows. To drive from one end of the farm to the other and back again would take 12 hours, which, despite the time of day dairy farmers rise, would leave little time for work.

Even for farmers managing more modest landholdings, scale can be the enemy of productivity. Every farm needs water and fuel, and depending on the type of operation, feed and fertilizer too. Whether generated on site or delivered, these consumables require storage in tanks and silos to ensure their availability year round. Running out of fuel, feed or water is not an option, so knowing precisely what stores you have at any given time is essential. But checking tank levels in multiple silos in person is a time consuming—not to mention potentially hazardous— exercise, even on a relatively small farm, let alone one on the scale of the appropriately-named Mudanjiang City Mega Farm.

Previously the property manager would have to drive long distances to physically inspect each tank, in some cases putting themselves at risk by climbing high silos to inspect the contents from above. Now, thanks to wireless technology, things are changing and the ability to monitor tank levels remotely is opening new possibilities.

Figure 1: The CoreKinect TankTrack completely eliminates the problem of farms running out of fuel or fertilizer

U.S.-based CoreKinect last year introduced a farm storage tank level monitor and asset tracker that it says completely eliminates the problem of farms running out of fuel or fertilizer. The CoreKinect TankTrack is a battery- powered wireless gauge reader that can be securely attached to any ammonia, propane or diesel storage tank using four permanent magnets. Both tank level and GPS location readings are sent via Nordic Semiconductor nRF9160-powered LTE-M cellular connectivity to a Cloud platform accessible from any smartphone, tablet orcomputer, allowing farmers to remotely ensure they don’t run short of fertilizer or fuel essential for heating.

“These farms are huge and there’s no way a farmer is going out to check on ten tanks each day unless they’re working nearby,” says Ali Kozlica, Executive Chairman at CoreKinect. “While this problem is nothing new in farming, before the advent of cellular IoT technology a commercially viable way to remotely monitor levels in fuel storage tanks simply did not exist.

“Lack of coverage and power requirements made such a solution cost prohibitive. With cellular IoT, all the major barriers are broken and the rules have changed. If you can eliminate just one unnecessary visit to a tank it pays for the entire cost of the solution.”

DRIVING CHANGE

It’s not only farmers reaping the benefits of wireless tank monitoring solutions. According to U.K.-based roadside assistance group, Green Flag, 70,000 U.K. motorists run out of fuel on the road each month. Despite the presence of a fuel gauge, warning lights and the digital display telling us we have 20 kilometers left in the tank, tens of thousands of us ignore the visual cues, including the signs on the motorway saying ‘last fuel for 50 kilometers’, and push on, taking pride in rolling into the next gas station with nothing but fumes in the tank. But while wireless technology probably can’t save the public from itself, it is proving a valuable tool for remote fuel monitoring for both fleet managers and pan-continental logistics companies.

Fuel costs can amount to as much as one third of all fleet operating expenses, so to increase efficiency and cut costs, knowing exactly how much fuel is going into each tank in the fleet, and how much is coming out and when, is information worth knowing. Live access to this data enables management to reduce operating costs by optimizing routes, monitor potential causes of anomalous fuel consumption and assess potential breaches of protocol by drivers – not least the increasing problem of fuel theft.

Stealing fuel is one of the biggest problems faced by the trucking industry. How big is difficult to determine but according to an Australian fuel card comparison website, $10 billion worth of diesel is stolen each year at an average weekly loss of $125 per vehicle. Operate a fleet of 100 semi-trailers and that adds up to a potential $650,000 loss every year. The tricks of the trade are well known, usually involving either fuel siphoning or ‘skimming’, using the company fuel card to purchase fuel for other vehicles or to sell on for profit. “The biggest problem we see is not theft of the whole tank of fuel, but skimming, where 20-50 gallons [75-190 liters] are stolen in just a few minutes,” says David Rogers, General Manager of FuelDefend Global, a company specializing in anti-fuel theft solutions. “Unfortunately, these incidents often go unnoticed by the fleet or owner- operator because quantities are small … maybe 2-to-4 percent of fuel consumption. It’s significant, but perhaps not enough to alert them to a theft problem.”

Traditionally this crime has been difficult to detect as many factors can affect fuel consumption—road conditions, wind, driving habits and mechanical faults for example—but now technology is catching up with the thieves. Wireless, remote fuel monitoring systems can now ensure all purchased fuel was put in the tank, and identify where, when and how much fuel was drained from a vehicle, even providing live notifications should fuel levels drop beyond expected levels. Detailed fuel level and fuel consumption reports can document amounts at trip-start and -end, total fuel consumed, average fuel consumption as well as refueling and fuel draining events, putting managers back in control of their fleets.

Figure 2: The Escort TD-BLE fuel level sensor is the world’s first wireless capacitive fuel level sensor integrating Bluetooth LE technology

One company pioneering such solutions is Escort Group, one of Russia’s leading manufacturers of M2M and IoT equipment, who recently launched its Escort TD-BLE fuel level sensor claimed to be the world’s first wireless capacitive fuel level sensor integrating Bluetooth LE technology. Primarily designed for the transport telematics market, once installed to a vehicle the device employs Nordic’s nRF52832 SoC to wirelessly send the collected fuel level data to a Bluetooth LE- and GPS-enabled tracking device. Once the data is transmitted from the fuel level sensor to the tracker, it can then be transferred to the Cloud—typically via the GSM channel, or in rare cases via satellite—where the detailed information and insights can be viewed through a web-based dashboard by fleet management.

The Escort TD-BLE fuel level sensor also offers ‘black box’ functionality, collecting information on fuel levels or fuel ‘events’ that are then stored in the Nordic SoC’s memory for 30 days, overcoming any deliberate attempts to disrupt data transmission. “It’s not uncommon for heavy-duty drivers to intentionally jam the tracker’s signal … in doing so the tracker loses its connection to the fuel level sensor, and the satellite control system receives no information about fuel consumption,” says Anton Turkin, CEO of Escort Group. “Drivers can continue jamming the signal and drain the fuel during this time [but] thanks to the fact that TD- BLE collects and stores data regardless … you can always recover information about fuel events, no matter what happens earlier on the road.”

KEEPING HOME FIRES BURNING

While commercial instances of fuel tank monitoring solutions are gaining plenty of attention, domestic applications are equally prevalent. Many rural homeowners who do not have access to natural gas pipelines rely on bottled propane for space heating, water heating and clothes drying, and according to the World LPG Association, household use of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) accounts for approximately 44 percent of global propane consumption.

In the United States, 47 million households use propane to fuel an outdoor gas grill, while restaurants and caterers use propane for cooking and warming food, and also to fuel patio heaters for outdoor seating areas in cold climates. Because of its portability, propane is also popular with campers and RV owners to power appliances. According to University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point research, approximately 70 million liters of propane are exhausted in domestic applications every day, providing a sizeable consumer market for tank level monitoring solutions that ensure fuel availability when it is needed.

Figure 3: Mopeka Products’ Pro Check Sensor mounts magnetically underneath a propane tank or cylinder and employs a combination of Bluetooth LE and ultrasound technology to let users know exactly how much fuel is remaining

Mopeka Products, a developer of tank and cylinder management platforms, is one company that has built its business on meeting demand for such solutions, offering a range of wireless monitoring technology for propane, as well as water, heating oil, chemical and beverage tanks. For example, the company’s Pro Check Sensor—a propane tank level sensor that mounts magnetically underneath a tank or cylinder—employs a combination of Bluetooth LE and ultrasound technology to let users know exactly how much fuel is remaining in their tank, rather than them relying on guesswork. The sensor employs the integrated Nordic nRF52810 Bluetooth LE SoC’s Arm Cortex processor to measure the time of flight of ultrasound waves in the propane and then uses that information to calculate the fuel level in the tank.

Using the Bluetooth LE wireless connectivity provided by the Nordic SoC, the fuel level data is relayed to a companion app on the user’s smartphone or tablet, where they can view fuel level readings as well as set threshold alarms if the level is low, reminding them to refill the tank well before it’s exhausted. A proprietary Wi-Fi bridge also allows the user to read the tank or cylinder level information remotely.

ANSWERING INDUSTRY’S CALL

Beyond the farm, fleet or family, remote level monitoring solutions are also proving valuable in a range of industrial applications. Wastewater, chemical and petrochemical, and mining industries all require intermittent observation of fluids to ensure tanks don’t run out or overflow, and that the fluid is being drawn from the tank in line with expected usage. Overfills result in material and production loss or potential environmental damage, while running out of materials delays production and delivery too. Establishing a network of wired sensors around complex industrial facilities may require expensive and time consuming trenching of thousands of meters of cables that not only disrupts production but lacks flexibility should tanks require moving or if additional sensors need to be added to a network in the future. As such, wireless solutions are becoming a popular alternative.

“Wireless connectivity is flexible, cost-effective and much less hassle to deploy,” says Alf Helge Omre, a Business Development Manager with Nordic. “With a long range and power efficient solution like cellular IoT, you can easily connect hard-to-reach assets using sensors operating on independent batteries that can last for years. What’s more, when the required data rate is anything more than occasional, using the cellular network is easily the most economical solution.”

Wireless tank monitoring solutions that provide complete insight into far-flung assets allow farmers, fleet managers and industrial operations to make informed decisions, reduce costs, and enhance operational efficiency and safety. Householders can also sleep easy, safe in the knowledge wireless tech is on hand to ensure the tanks that fuel our cars, grills and heating are always being watched.


This article is republished from Nordic Semiconductor’s Wireless Quarter with permission. www.nordicsemi.com/News/Wireless-Quarter

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