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How the latest localisation beacon technology is helping Lufthansa’s journey towards Industry 4.0

13 December 2017

German airline Lufthansa is seeking to develop the full potential of expanded organisational information flowing from the new technologies we group together under the Industry 4.0 banner. One important element of this is the integratation of the latest mobile and beacon technology to capture location, tracking and sensor data from the people, assets and systems within its operations.

"Translating technical progress into everyday practice is a challenge", says Dr. Holger Schlüter, Associate Director IIoT/Industry 4.0 at the airline’s IT subsidiary, Lufthansa Industry Solutions. "Independent of their industry, businesses share the same challenge: they must design their entire value chain to reduce costs while simultaneously increasing productivity and efficiency. The management, tracking and localisation of assets plays an important role in this.”

The company therefore set out to find solutions that would cover the wide range of operational circumstances experienced in the airline’s daily operations and which would also have to be suitable for hazardous areas, key environments within any airline’s operations.

"We see ourselves as a 'hinge' between business and technology," Schlüter says.

Lufthansa Industry Solutions needed to integrate the new solution into its Industry 4.0 portfolio incorporating high precision, low battery consumption, certified explosion protection and integration within an overall digitisation strategy.

After looking at the options available on the market, Lufthansa finally decided to team up with ecom, part of the Pepperl + Fuchs Group. The ecom range of explosion-proof, wirelessly interlinked products, including beacons, smartphones, tablets and peripherals, as well as apps and software, was deemed the most likely to deliver the benefits identified by the company.

Beacon technology

The fundamental building blocks of the new system are ecom’s Loc-Ex 01 Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons for hazardous areas (ATEX/IECEx Zone 1) and Loc 01 HC & Loc 01 SC beacons for non-hazardous areas.

"With Loc-Ex 01 BLE beacons we are on the safe side. Common localisation solutions are often restricted to location data. The ecom beacons, on the other hand, provide an exceptionally cost-effective and largely maintenance-free option to collect data from assets and connect them to back-end systems, which is unique in the market," Schlüter says.

Another key element is the real-time localisation system, specifically developed for the accurate close range localisation of objects. By attaching small Bluetooth beacons, assets become intelligent, localisable objects, which can provide a wide range of information, such as temperature or fill level, and even respond to events such as keystroke, brightness, shock or positional change.

Apart from spatial information, additional information about local process parameters is transferred in real time. The Bluetooth 4.1 standard ensures that the beacons are compatible with both generally available and hazardous area explosion-proof tablets and smartphones.

This forms the basis of the new system. In addition, the beacons do not strain the company WLAN or take up any of the limited number of IP addresses by using Bluetooth and only transmitting the data to the backend system at a central location.

"We can configure our Loc 01 and Loc-Ex 01 BLE beacons specifically to our customers’ needs," says Paulo Jorge de Almeida, System Engineer Mobile Computing at ecom. "The Bluetooth beacons can control devices through the built-in back channel or act as a signalling device, so the desired object can be more easily identified. The Quuppa Intelligent Locating System, which uses angle-of-arrival technology, is employed. The horizontal and vertical angles between the locators and the beacons are determined simultaneously. A two-dimensional localisation with an accuracy within a few centimetres is possible with only one locator. At least two beacons are required for a localisation in 3D space.

Key benefits

The beacon technology offers Lufthansa Industry Solutions distinct advantages. Compared to other geo-location technologies, the beacons provide a high degree of precision and accuracy along all three axes. Due to a relatively long range of up to 300 metres in open space, the costs for monitoring large areas can be kept low and the desired localisation accuracy can be varied by the number of locators installed. In addition, neighbourhood relations and alarms can be defined, for example, if dangerous goods are at risk of collision or stored side by side. Also the insensitivity to signal strength fluctuations is a significant advantage over conventional Bluetooth-based localisation technologies.

Another advantage is low battery consumption. Due to the energy-saving nature of the Bluetooth Low Energy beacons, a battery change – even at the highest transmission power – is only necessary after several years of operation. Applications, which have the ability to be beacon powered, have minimal impact on the devices’ battery life.  Mobile apps can also pick up beacon signals on which a stable Internet connection is not available and store data locally on the device. When re-accessing the corporate network, the backend system is immediately updated.

Indoor and outdoor operation

Since tracking by GPS inside buildings is difficult due to obstruction of the required satellite signal, an alternative technology is necessary for indoor localisation. Bluetooth beacons have an interior range of approximately 10 to 30 metres. Thus it is possible to locate a person quickly, with the number of beacons required depending on the area in question and the desired accuracy of the location to be reached.

The signal transmitted by the beacons can be received by a suitable software app installed on the mobile device of the mobile worker. This allows the distance to the beacon to be calculated. As soon as the mobile worker is within reach of a second or further beacon, the location can be determined relatively precisely, depending on the location method. Even three-dimensional positioning is possible with Bluetooth beacons. That is to say, it is also possible to specify the floor on which a person or object is situated and can be forwarded to the central navigation system of the control centre.

Conclusion

Bluetooth beacons are perfect for locating, tracking and managing business-critical assets, and can combine digital and physical data into a single, unified business intelligence unit.

"Even though only a high-level reference architecture exists for the Industrial Internet of Things and there is as yet no industry standard, the Loc-Ex 01 BLE-Beacons from ecom have established themselves as an accepted asset tracking and localisation solution in hazardous areas that can also be integrated into any system. And when it came to adapting to specific requirements, ecom advised us comprehensively and provided us with various well thought-out customised solutions", says Lufthansa Industry Solutions’ Dr. Holger Schlüter.

About the author

Paulo Jorge de Almeida, System Engineer Mobile Computing at ecom, is a specialist in application engineering consulting. He supports customers in the integration of hardware and software products as well as the field service in the evaluation, development and processing of requirements specifications.


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