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Edge controllers enable pipeline digital transformation

Apr 28, 2020
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Digital transformation of new and existing pipelines using modern edge controllers provides rich new data access helping users improve operations says Denka Wangdi, Emerson

For industrial use cases, the concept of digitalisation often goes hand-in-hand with the term industrial internet of things (IIoT). IIoT includes all manner of smart digital devices that store critical data locally, including “edge controllers”, which are able to monitor conditions, communicate to other systems, and even perform control.

Edge controllers are the modern answer for providing reliable industrial control and enabling modern IIoT-capable data communications. Pipeline operations are ideal candidates for this type of digital transformation.

Pipelines ready for change

Pipeline projects over the years have typically implemented the programmable logic controller (PLC), remote terminal unit (RTU), and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) technologies available at the time of installation. Many pipelines have been updated incrementally as the originally installed versions of these technologies became obsolete.

But over 50 per cent of pipelines operating today were installed in the 1950s and 1960s (Reference 1). With so much legacy hardware out there, significant and useful data is often trapped in remote locations, waiting to be freed up and acted upon. Not only is the data difficult to attain, but the accuracy of the data is also questionable since previous pipelines weren’t equipped with condition monitoring equipment.

When the opportunity arises to update pipeline automation, or to perform a new design, end users need to preserve the robust operating characteristics of existing systems while taking full advantage of the latest digital transformation opportunities. Additionally, they would like to future-proof their systems to the greatest extent possible. Edge controllers are the answer for meeting these challenges, while providing additional benefits.

Edge controller solutions

Modern edge controllers are robustly packaged, and they physically appear to be much like traditional PLCs and RTUs (Figure 1). The difference is that an edge controller incorporates a real-time operating system (RTOS) for deterministic direct control—much like a PLC or RTU—and adds a general-purpose operating systems (OS) like Linux for performing advanced computing and communication tasks. The RTOS and general-purpose OS are completely independent from each other in hardware and software, but they can be configured to carefully and securely interact with each other using industry-standard OPC UA communications.

The RTOS portion of an edge controller can easily accommodate any traditional control logic. In fact, users can simply use an edge controller as a PLC replacement, reserving the more advanced capabilities for future implementation. However, the real benefits of digital transformation are realized when the general-purpose OS is brought into play.

Extensive process data can be gathered, stored, and analysed right in the general-purpose portion of the edge controller. Advanced algorithms and logic can be executed, with results securely transmitted to the RTOS portion of the controller as needed to implement responsive low-latency control.

Or, the general-purpose OS can securely communicate information up to supervisory systems for further evaluation. The general-purpose OS is provided with modern developments lacking in many conventional components, such as a firewall for security. Furthermore, it is equipped with IT-aware communication protocols like MQTT, which are optimal for the low-bandwidth telemetry connections usually available to pipeline operations.

Expanded access to digital intelligence, whether peer-to-peer in the field or up to an on-premises or internet-based cloud, helps operators make better decisions and work collaboratively, representing a cultural benefit delivered by digital transformation.

Pipeline-specific challenges

Edge controllers are well suited for meeting many other pipeline-specific challenges. Because of the all-in-one nature of edge controllers, end users can enhance basic control schemes with closely integrated on-board visualization options. Operators and maintenance personnel benefit from the detailed operational and diagnostic information made available this way.

Leak detection and corrosion monitoring are key operational challenges faced by pipeline operators, who need to be informed of these situations in a timely manner, while avoiding the expense of deploying personnel if there isn’t actually a problem. Edge controllers can provide the information necessary for good alarm management to address these and other issues.

Some of the latest instrumentation systems for these conditions can provide extensive data—which can only be acted on responsively if the information is communicated up to the operations and maintenance team. Edge controllers connect to these sensing systems with traditional I/O wiring, or with more advanced serial or network communications, and act as the gateway for this information. They also perform data logging to identify slow-moving changes trending toward a problem, and carry out other preprocessing, such as filtering, to minimize the chance of false alarms.

From an operational standpoint, surge control can be a big issue for many pipeline operations. Edge controllers make it possible to improve the situation by enabling each local controller to better interact with upstream and downstream stations, and to responsively coordinate operations with a central control room. With more data and computational power available, users now can implement advanced surge control automation schemes.

The New or Retrofit Digital Transformation Answer

The flexibility to apply edge controllers to any new or existing pipeline automation system is important in many applications. Edge controllers can improve upon classic PLC and RTU implementations by adding to basic control functionality with integrated monitoring, data processing, and visualization features. Additionally, edge controllers can be seamlessly added to existing automation systems to add IIoT capabilities without disrupting current operations.

Pipeline operators are becoming aware of the benefits offered by digital transformation, but they may be cautious about how to proceed. Edge controllers are a logical step to bring IIoT advantages into any operation while preserving existing investments. Using edge control devices and IIoT concepts, end users can solve many problems and improve pipeline operations.

Reference 1: Guest Post. (2016, December 20). Over 50% of the nation’s pipelines were constructed in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Retrieved on
1/13/2020 from https://www.valuewalk.com/2016/12/50-nations-pipelines-constructed-1950s-1960s/ .

This feature appeared in the April issue of Pipeline Magazine

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