April 19, 2017

Field Ops: How we prepare for IoT deployment

Craig at Langwater Farm

Above photo: Craig juggles setting up a keyboard and mouse in a hoop house at Langwater Farm.

Craig Edwards is Field Operations Lead at Impact LABS, meaning he is tasked with commissioning IoT solutions live, in the field, and with our pilot host partners.

Commissioning is one of IoT markets’ biggest challenges right now. Commissioning is the dual process of physical installation and digital/logical provisioning. On their own, challenges with installing and provisioning have created entire field service industries. Together they are a top-three challenge in IoT.

In his role, Craig leads our problem solving to install new technology in hoop houses on farms, harborside docks, remote vineyards, and a growing list of challenging locations, each with its own set of requirements.

In this post, Craig outlines how LABS explores the opportunity and requirements to deploy solutions with a new pilot host. Pilot host Site Survey, Potential Solution Qualification Surveys and more happen in the middle of the LABS process.

What is The Why?

Before we even arrive to survey a pilot site we identify and refine an opportunity: Why does the host want to pilot a system? What business benefits are they seeking? What assets, inventories, areas of operation, processes, or personnel are they looking to instrument or digitize? Does this pilot create experiences that help us to solve a grand challenge? Specifically we are looking into five opportunity sets: natural resources, resilient infrastructure, smart cities, food security, and industry 4.0.

Next we perform exploration and research around that opportunity; define our approaches and solution, and propose a pilot project. At this point, we are ready for a site survey.

Craig will take you through the steps:

First, we survey the site.

We start with a comprehensive survey of each new pilot site. The site survey is where we gather requisite information we need in order to facilitate a successful installation. The site survey is a chance to comb through as many details as possible in order to efficiently source and configure (or integrate) an effective system to pilot. We look at details as unobtrusive as a simple wall outlet (it would be rather silly to create a system that needs power if we can’t plug it in anywhere) to a detailed wireless spectrum coverage map with signal strengths for communications protocols such as Wi-Fi, cell, or LPWAN.

Site surveys seek to identify, define, locate key assets, inventory locations and key operational areas where the pilot hosts, and our teams, think we might create value through instrumentation.

Next, we propose a system.

Once all details of the pilot site have been collected, we shift attention to the proposed system for the pilot site. All portions of the system go through a rigorous process we call a Qualification Survey. The Qualification Survey is designed to highlight the strengths or weaknesses of a given software component, sensor or subsystem solution. We look first to commercially available offerings, and then work our way backward to ‘beta’ (limited release) offerings, alpha, and for Sponsors, prototypes.

Beta or Alpha solutions can be powerful additions to solutions that are not yet commercially available, but appropriate for deployment (as we often pilot early stage IoT solutions). My role in the qualification survey is configuration and stress testing. My goal at this point is to configure the system in a way that replicates the configuration it will see in field, as closely as possible, and to put as much stress on the system as it can take.

Next, we compare findings and assess fit and gaps.

All human and digital ‘observations’ during qualification are entered and kept in our database.
It is at this point that the detailed commissioning phase begins. We compare the findings of the qualification survey and bump it up against the site survey. This is done to make sure the system is viable in the proposed environment. I will look at things such as power requirements for the system, compliance or legal concerns, any indicators that might rule out the system being used for the given pilot.

Next, we run tests at LABS.

This is where we try to configure the system as closely as I possibly can to the way it will be deployed. I am looking to replicate the conditions of deployment with this test, parameters such as climate conditions or performance in connectivity challenged environments. A system may work efficiently during the qualification period with full cellular coverage, but if there is not full coverage in the pilot environment we must ensure it can perform under these conditions.

Time to deploy.

Once mock testing is completed, a materials and tools list is compiled and the system is installed.
Commissioning in the field is one of the most unique and powerful aspects of what LABS does. We take solutions that were configured at LABS, and run them through their trial by fire – or salt water, or weather, and worse – and see if they can be integral parts of resilient futures for the businesses, cities and others that we pilot with.

Preparing to deploy IoT solutions in the real world with dirt, water, freezing weather, wind, and other factors is challenging work. We are committed to this work at LABS because we believe that IoT needs to be in the places that matter, addressing the challenges that are important: water, food, security, and safety so that all communities can benefit from better lives.