Connecting humans to the Industrial Internet of Things

June 23, 2017

The impact of IIoT on traditional SCADA architectures

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) offers the possibility of integrating additional instrumentation into supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) projects. IIoT networks enable new methods for data acquisition, which include alternative ways to accomplish this integration. The data is different not only in nature, but also by the method used for acquisition and its applicability to SCADA situational awareness.

As an independent global SCADA software platform provider for more than 30 years, PcVue Inc. has seen many evolutions of SCADA technology including the networks that are used for data acquisition. Its focus is to support the architectures to acquire IIoT sensor information and consolidate it with the rest of SCADA real-time data. This means adding IIoT data feeds into SCADA hosts that are currently using hardwired industrial IP networks, often with legacy serial communications in the mix.

Two emerging business models exist for Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) to connect to IIoT sensors. The first model is represented by providers offering a complete infrastructure. An example of this kind of provider is Sigfox, a business model to provide a standard application programming interface (API) for consumers to connect to any IoT or IIoT sensor in its environment. Sigfox provides the complete LPWAN including cell towers and servers. These systems are designed for updates on an infrequent basis with minimal data exchanged. A fee is charged each time the Sigfox infrastructure is used to acquire data.

A different approach is taken by the LoRa Alliance with their LoRaWAN technology. The LoRaWAN protocol is quite interesting for SCADA applications because it is not a turnkey infrastructure. The LoRa Alliance is an open, non-profit association of members who are collaborating on the protocol. It is possible to purchase LoRaWAN gateways and associate the gateways with IIoT sensors reporting back to a network server. The user (or third-party service provider) owns the equipment and, therefore, the data architecture and costs associated with transmission. This means that SCADA data does not have to go through the cloud but can be acquired and consumed at the local plant or facility.

Based on the history of the industry, experts expect that SCADA data acquisition from IIoT will have different flavors and it is likely they will happen in parallel. This is consistent with what has happened in previous networking evolutions, which is why SCADA platform providers still have and support serial communications. In the case of IIoT, some data exists in a cloud platform that customers will want to integrate into their SCADA environment and others that they need to acquire locally – architecture options must support both.

The impact of the Industrial Internet of Things on SCADA users

With ease of adding new IIoT sensors to the SCADA system, experts expect to see an increasing amount of data integrated into the platform. This comes at a time when workers are increasingly mobile and looking to their mobile devices for real-time SCADA data.

Consider the Substation Automation vertical, a market growing quickly as the smart grid becomes reality. There has been a push to put intelligence into the distribution network because renewable energy production is increasingly done within the distribution network and because of the increase of microgrids. Many new intelligent electronic devices (IED) are coming online in this environment.

While this information is critically important to understanding loading and performance of the network and the current status of the devices, it also brings its own risks – risk that the operators ignore the new data, and more importantly, risk that the operators get confused by the amount of data presented and potentially make a bad decision because of it. Operators need help to filter that data into actionable data that they can work with.

SCADA has traditionally been a control room solution. Modern control rooms typically have a large number of screens to keep track of various aspects of the system. As operators become more mobile and rely more on their mobile devices, the “real estate problem” occurs – the amount of screen real estate available to display SCADA information is shrinking just at the time that the amount of data to display is increasing. To make sense of SCADA data and maintain operator situational awareness, it is necessary to downsize and get smarter about the way SCADA information is presented to the user, whether it comes from the IIoT or from traditional SCADA systems.

Contextual mobility – The right information to the right person at the right location

Contextual mobility is the ability to use location and user profile, as a filter, to provide the right information securely to the right person at the right location and at the right time. With contextual mobility, it is possible to declutter the operator’s screen and automatically provide the information and control elements that a user requires to do their job.

How do you know where the right location is? One approach to contextual mobility is to use standard geolocation features found on commercially available smartphones and tablets. When outdoors, and where the location does not require an elevation, the GPS adapter is sufficient. In other cases, proximity services using microgeotags can be used to identify the geofenced zone a user is in. Microgeotags include Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Near Field Communications (NFC) tags, QR codes and Wi-Fi access point triangulation.

The architecture is centered on the mobility server and its contextual logic engine, which is responsible for delivering the content to the mobile device based on the user profile and the geozone(s) in which the user is currently located. With an app on a mobile device that senses and reports the nearby geotags, the mobility server senses the device’s movements and populates the user interface with the necessary information and controls for the people logged into the device to perform their work without the need to navigate through control room screens scaled down to the size of a smartphone or tablet.

Archiving the current location of the device as it moves has great potential for safety and efficiency. The system described is now capable of assisting in the case of an emergency, for example, the need to evacuate an area or warn a user that he or she is entering an unsafe area. It can even be used for access control to those areas. Tracking users via their mobile devices may not be allowed under certain situations, so the mobility server can be configured to ignore location history.

In this approach, a SCADA system does the supervision and the communication to the equipment for data acquisition and supervisory control. That is not something developers envision happening on the mobile device. The mobility server is a new component of a complete SCADA system.

Contextual mobility cybersecurity

Previously, the concept of delivering the information securely to the right person at the right location and at the right time was discussed. The security of mobile devices is an extension of the cybersecurity concerns that are common to all SCADA systems today, but made more complicated by the additional end points to be protected.

Mobile device management and attitudes toward Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) are indicators of the security culture of the SCADA user relying on contextual mobility. Technology suppliers as well as end users have a role in securing the mobile devices in use.

If that control information has been downloaded to a personal mobile worker and he or she leaves a defined geofenced area, technology exists to ensure information provided by the mobility server is wiped off the phone. This avoids any confusion on the users’ part of being in the proximity of equipment and operating a control attached to equipment in a different zone, which would be both an operational and safety issue.

Use case – Maintenance

The first example is a maintenance worker responding to a work order on equipment. The worker is logged into the app and as he or she approaches the floor that the equipment and several others are located on, the mobile device begins to display the overall status of the equipment in the room. Perhaps the equipment requiring maintenance raises an alarm and that alarm status may be shown along with other equipment that is behaving normally.

As the maintenance worker approaches the equipment room housing the faulty equipment, he holds his phone near the door, which responds by allowing access to a sub geozone. As this happens, additional information is presented to the worker including additional real-time data from the equipment with trends showing how that data has moved over time.

When approaching the specific equipment that is scheduled for maintenance, there is a small QR code that the maintenance worker scans. Now, the worker is inside the third nested geofence and additional information appears on the mobile device. This includes the maintenance procedure, maintenance work history, maintenance documents and controls that allow the maintenance worker to place the equipment in maintenance mode to suppress alarms related to performing the repair.

The mobile worker updates the work log and leaves the area when the maintenance is complete. All controls and information related to this maintenance are automatically removed from the phone.

Use case – Operations

The second use case is a field operator making his or her rounds. It is common for equipment to have small human machine interfaces (HMI) for local status monitoring and limited control. With contextual mobility the HMI may not be necessary. As the operator approaches the equipment, the information for the HMI is directed to the operator’s mobile device automatically. If the operator needs to make an adjustment to the equipment or compare it to expected values he or she can find that information on the mobile device.

During their rounds field operators may have to make notes of the current value of unconnected data, such as a legacy analog power meter. While they may have used a clipboard in the past, with contextual mobility they can simply refer to their mobile device, which has anticipated the operator’s next step and has a form control ready to enter the data. This eliminates transcribing the collected information, which can contain quality issues from human error.

IIoT & contextual mobility create opportunities

The combination of increasing sensor information coming from IIoT devices, combined with adoption of mobile devices as the primary interface to industrial SCADA and HMI systems, has both challenges and opportunities. The competing forces of more information on less real estate for SCADA and HMI data are diametrically opposed. The status quo of SCADA design does not fit well with this emerging environment and an alternative approach is needed.

Some suppliers have taken a position of “just use our portal to get what you need from the cloud.” This is an overly simplistic answer that does little to help the users understand the SCADA data and translate that to situational awareness.

A better approach is a model based on the inclusion of a mobility server equipped with a contextual logic engine to deliver the information and controls for users to do their job, when they are on-site and able to make use of good and clearly presented data.


Practical Guidance for Defining a Smart Grid Modernization Strategy, Marcelino Madrigal, Robert Uluski, World Bank Publications, Feb. 4, 2015

Edward Nugent has 24 years of experience with SCADA development and implementation and is currently the Chief Operating Officer for PcVue Inc., a global independent SCADA/HMI provider in Woburn, Massachusetts. His career has spanned education, engineering and management leveraging a passion for capturing and communicating the business value of measurement and control technology. He has a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Mechanics from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s in Business Administration from the University of Puget Sound. He is former President of the International Society of Automation’s Aloha Section and a member of the Western States Petroleum Association. Nugent is an author and editor for the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Center for Advanced Technology Training SMART Grid Curriculum Development project; an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act program of the U.S. Department of Energy. He is an industry advisor and instructor for the Process Technology (PTEC) Program within the University of Hawaii Office of Continuing Education & Workforce Development (OCEWD) program and was an associate professor of Operations Research at the University of Puget Sound.

PcVue Inc.

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