Innovation comes in small packages

Von Matt Hamblen

BP PLC Chief Technology Officer Phiroz Darukhanavala and other IT leaders kicked off Mobile & Wireless World in Scottsdale, Arizona on Tuesday by talking about a variety of wireless projects that wouldn"t have been possible to implement even a year ago. Darukhanavala described five wireless pilot projects at the global oil and gas provider that involve the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) or other small sensors over wireless networks to improve safety and reliability. And he said that large companies shouldn"t view wireless technology as something that should be limited to supply chain functions.

"There are a number of places in organizations for the transformational influence" of wireless technologies, Darukhanavala said, adding that while the impact of wireless hasn"t made the same "big splash" as the Internet, it will likely have a bigger impact on corporations.

London-based BP has seen expanded wireless deployments in the past year, he said, primarily because of smarter and smaller sensors, more powerful and pervasive computing and a range of wireless technologies -- including Wi-Fi and WiMax networks, low earth orbit satellites and conventional cellular technology.

Wireless technologies are being used in one project to detect possible intrusions to pipelines in North America, notifying a command center if a building contractor has come too close to a pipeline. Another pilot involves tracking a global fleet of 18,000 rail cars carrying petrochemicals to monitor the temperatures in the rail cars and look for signs of tampering. That pilot relies on sensors aboard the rail cars linked to command centers through satellite communications.

"Believe it or not," Darukhanavala said, "we lose rail cars.

The company is also using wireless technology remotely to collect corrosion data along the Alaskan pipeline, where Arctic conditions make worker data collections almost impossible, he said.

Other presenters today at Mobile & Wireless World included officials from Baptist Health in Jacksonville, Fla., and the mayor of St. Cloud, Fla., Glenn Sangiovanni. St. Cloud has already rolled out a free public-access Wi-Fi system in a 12-block downtown area and plans to expand it to all of its 28,000 residents. Sangiovanni said the town has moved ahead -- despite strong opposition from some Internet service providers -- because it wants to keep wireless access dollars within the community.

Families now spend about US$450 a year on Internet access. By offering wireless Internet access for free, that money that can instead be spent on local goods and services in the area, Sangiovanni said.

Public safety officials will be able to use the Wi-Fi network on a separate secure channel, offering a variety of new capabilities such as the ability to quickly broadcast a missing child"s photo. Annual operating costs for the wireless system will be about $350,000, but the system will also save the town money by reducing the need to hire up to eight employees, he said.

Hewlett-Packard Co. provided about $25,000 in start-up capital costs for the project, Sangiovanni said.