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What will power the pop up work site of the future?

Cloud computing and hybrid airships could propel an energy-efficient revolution in the industrial Internet of Things.

What will power the pop up work site of the future?

Our nation’s heavy energy consumption could easily be blamed on the tyranny of distance. After all, we have a lot of ground to cover when transporting cargo, piping gas or transmitting electricity across the continent.

As the Department of Industry and Science reported in 2015, the biggest energy consuming sectors are now transport and mining, which both have supply challenges across vast distances to contend with.

What if more Australian businesses better managed their energy consumption? In 2015 the Department of Industry and Science funded a 20-step program called Energy Cut, which aims to help businesses become smarter at using energy so they can save money – and improve profitability.

Two of Energy Cut’s biggest money-saving recommendations were:

  1. Measure your energy to find out exactly where it’s being used and how efficiently it’s being used so that the business can make more savings
  2. Switch to cloud computing to save on IT operation costs, while future proofing your business with access to the latest software and up-to-date records of your business activities

Energy efficiency is especially important at ‘off-grid’ and temporary work sites, as the cost of hauling in fuel for power generators (let alone the cost of the fuel itself) can be massive.

Australia has a strong history of innovation for off-grid working, with companies such as UON (Telstra Medium Business of the Year in 2012) developing self-contained (or ‘containerised) power supplies built tough for industry working in some of the country’s harshest conditions.

Add internet access via mobile and satellite to help complete the connection, thus allowing for better monitoring and control of essential equipment via cloud applications. Then consider the final piece of the pop-up work site puzzle: going the distance with heavy cargo.

Trend #1: Measure energy just about anywhere

The days of the old fashioned energy meter mounted on a wall or boxed in a basement of each business premise are numbered. Businesses can’t do much about changing day-to-day energy patterns when the data is weeks old; or as the authors of EnergyCut remind us: ‘you can’t manage what you can’t properly measure’.

Smart meters that transmit up-to-the-minute reports back to HQ have been around for several years, from simple devices that connect to a site’s WiFi hub to send reports via the internet, to M2M devices with built-in mobile network connectivity and telemetry devices with radio transmitters for remote sites.

Coupled with applications in the cloud, even single-site smart meters can help businesses adjust their energy consumption patterns day-to-day and better predict the running costs of all equipment connected to a power source.

The market for these meters is rapidly growing from an estimated 59.2 million units in 2012 to 165.5 million units by 2020 according to recent Grand View Research reports.

“Commercial applications accounted for more than 35% of the global revenue in 2013 and is expected to grow in the future owing to the growing demand for electricity meters with a high level of flexibility,” noted an April 2016 release from Grand View. “The market is also driven by administrative regulations, aligned expenses and growing awareness for energy conservation.”

Trend #2: Cloud allows better monitoring and control

While cutting energy costs is a frequently-touted promise of cloud computing (along with savings through cloud subscriptions instead of the capital expenses of hardware and software), the next big saving could come from using applications hosted in the cloud to monitor and manage performance and consumption across all areas of a business.

Many of the utility companies themselves are using apps in the cloud and the industrial internet-of-things (including sensors and remote controls on machines) for better, more up-to-date analysis of how their operations are performing. They’re also remotely adjusting the performance of machines, software and even people on the go to improve efficiency, safety and productivity.

A GE Report on digital electricity noted that some companies are also using predictive modelling applications in the cloud to test new power plant designs before building them.

The report included a case study on Pakistani textile maker Sapphire Group, which ran simulations in the cloud to not only help it refine the design of a new power plant, but also to test the best ways to run it during peak production.

“Moving into power generation was a step that made sense,” said Shahid Abdull, president of Sapphire Group. “Not just from a business perspective, but also in terms of realising our mission and contributing to the development of the communities in which we work and live.”

Managing the data flow from sensors and other internet-connected devices across your operations will be a growing challenge, whichever sector you’re in.

In 2016 we’ll see the number of internet-connected things grow by almost a third to 6.4 billion predicts global research firm Gartner – and more than triple to 20.8 billion by 2020.

Trend #3: Going the distance with heavy cargo on hybrid airships

So what about overcoming that tyranny of distance to set up a new industrial site when the location doesn’t have reliable road or water transport routes?

The answer could be giant inflated motherships according to a Tracking the trends 2016 report for the mining sector from Deloitte.

It points out that Lockheed Martin is keen to build a market for airship-plane hybrids that would allow mining companies (for example) to haul equipment to off-grid and off-road locations.

Indeed, Lockheed Martin’s industry primer for its Hybrid Airships strongly focuses on the revamped technology’s ability to give “unlimited access to isolated locations around the globe… safely and sustainably supporting a wide range of activities in areas with little to no infrastructure”. Or as the short slogan puts it: “No roads, no problem”.

One mammoth competitor with fairly humble origins is the UK-built Airlander, which was partially funded by pilot-and-rock-frontman Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden fame plus. As reported in The Guardian this year, the Airlander was built in the same hangars that housed some of Britain’s WWI airship fleet.

This time around airships will perform some of the same reconnaissance and communications duties as their predecessors (albeit with very highly sophisticated mobile-internet and voice communications) while carrying much bigger cargoes and covering greater distances.

In fact, they could start work any day now: in April 2016 Hybrid Air Vehicles was granted permits from both the European Aviation Safety Agency and UK Civil Aviation Authority to take its Airlander to the skies.

So, if Lockheed, Hybrid Air Vehicles and their peers are on the money, distance and lack of existing ‘grids’ (including electricity, landline communications, water and road networks) will no longer be a hindrance to new projects in hard-to-reach places.

The financial upshot? Well, according to Deloitte’s research for the mining industry: “Costs for the airships are expected to be comparable to truck transport over icy roads, and considerably cheaper than helicopter transport”.

Quite the quiet revolution.

Discover how flying machines, battery-powered networks and cloud computing are quietly changing heavy industry in our research report: Drones, sensors and switches go remote.

Find Out More

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