Wireless level monitoring fuels innovation

3 min read

From wood and charcoal for providing heat, to dietary animal fats and grain for food, for the past two million years fuel in all its forms has sustained human life.

While industrialization and technological advancement has brought with it increasingly sophisticated fuel sources, one constant has remained – running out of fuel can be inconvenient, disruptive, even life threatening.

For instance, on farms, fuel, water, feed or fertilizer shortages can have a devastating impact on livestock and crops. And for commercial trucking operations - where fuel costs can amount to as much as 30 percent of a company’s total expenditure, according to fleet management company Verizon Connect - knowing how much gas is left is critical.

And yet, measuring fuel’s availability remains a hit-and-miss process. For example, domestic users are faced with estimating how much propane remains in a tank using at best an imprecise analog gauge, or worse the unscientific ‘weigh it in your hand and give it your best guess’ approach.

From wires to wireless

If running out of fuel for the home-owner is inconvenient, at an industrial facility it can cause significant production delays, or, in the case of an overfill, even worse, a potential disaster. In 1983 an overfill at a fuel storage facility in New Jersey resulted in the explosion of three storage tanks, the death of one employee and injury to 24 others. The incident cost the company nearly $50 million, or $123 million in today’s money.

Today, networks of wired level monitoring sensors mitigate against a repeat misadventure, but trenching thousands of meters of cables around a sprawling industrial complex is not only expensive, but also lacks flexibility should tanks require moving or if additional sensors need to be added to a network in the future. As such, for industry, consumers, farmers, and fleet operators alike, wireless solutions are becoming a popular alternative.

The truck owners in particular are adopting the technology with gusto. With so many variables potentially affecting truck fuel consumption—excessive speed, sudden braking, harsh acceleration, wind, engines left idling for extended periods—pinpointing whether excessive fuel use is down to simply bad driving or rather the illegal practice of fuel ‘skimming’ (siphoning off fuel at the pump for other vehicles or to sell on for profit), is difficult if not impossible without help. Hence the enthusiasm for technical assistance.

In the trucking industry, approximately $10 billion of diesel fuel is stolen each year, equivalent to $125 per vehicle, every single week. But now cellular and Bluetooth LE-based solutions can remotely monitor a host of data - including fuel levels and consumption, and the location and volume of refueling and fuel draining events - to leave the thieves with nowhere to hide.

One of Russia’s leading manufacturers of M2M and IoT equipment, Escort Group, recently launched a wireless capacitive fuel level sensor integrating Bluetooth LE technology based on Nordic Semiconductor’s nRF52832 SoC. Once installed, the device wirelessly sends this data to a Bluetooth LE- and GPS-enabled tracking device.

When the data is transmitted from the fuel level sensor to the tracker, it can then be transferred to the Cloud, 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. Down on the farm

Before wireless technology came along, farmers had to travel long distances to inspect silos in person, frequently having to risk climbing the tank to inspect the contents from above. Now, LTE-M cellular connectivity enables tanks in remote agricultural locations to wirelessly report their level data so the user can remotely monitor fuel, water, or fertilizer stores, via a Cloud platform, on their smartphone, tablet or computer.

If levels are running low, an alarm can be triggered and fuel or feed can be ordered to ensure just-in-time delivery of these essential materials. On farms the size of small countries, it’s a game changer. “[Some] 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,” said Ali Kozlica, Executive Chairman at CoreKinect, a company that last year launched a cellular IoT-powered farm storage tank level monitor for this purpose. 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 nRF9160-powered LTE-M cellular connectivity to the farmer, enabling them to respond remotely to shortages. “While this problem is nothing new, before the advent of cellular IoT technology a commercially viable way to remotely monitor levels in fuel storage tanks did not exist,” continued Kozlica. “With cellular IoT, all the major barriers are broken and the rules have changed.”

Consumers too are benefiting from wireless tech for fuel measurement. In areas not serviced by natural gas pipelines, bottled fuel is essential for everything from cooking and heating to clothes drying, as well as powering appliances on the half-a-million or so recreational vehicles (RVs) sold every year.

Wireless sensors now keep a wary eye on household fuel consumption, specifically the propane used in countless domestic cooking and heating applications. Ultrasonic sensors in combination with Bluetooth LE can measure the fuel remaining in a tank or cylinder and relay that data to an app on the homeowner’s smartphone. From the app threshold alarms can be set, ensuring propane bottles and tanks are refueled before heating systems run dry. Mopeka Products’ Pro Check Sensor is one such system, based on Nordic’s nRF52810 Bluetooth LE SoC.

For farmers, fleet managers, industrial operations and consumers alike, wireless level monitoring solutions can keep watch of our fuel tank levels when we cannot, enabling us all to make informed decisions, reduce costs, and enhance efficiency and safety.

Author details: Alf Helge Omre, Business Development Manager, Nordic Semiconductor