Tool Trends 2015: Mobile Communications

Mobile communications relating to construction usually is thought of in terms of wireless communications between the office, field personnel and vendors using telephone, email and data transmission. However, technology has progressed to the point that tools are communicating directly with smartphones and tablets. Testing equipment is a good example.

Fluke Corp. senior product manager John Neeley said wireless testers are a fast-moving market.


“The emergence of the smartphone and the fairly recent development of Bluetooth low energy [BLE] technology has opened the possibilities of effective communication between test tools and smartphones and tablets,” he said. “They have provided Fluke and Fluke Connect, the company’s energy app, the opportunity to develop a broad range of products with wireless capabilities. The Fluke Connect app on the smartphone/tablet then uses a regular Wi-Fi or cellular connection to upload the data from the smartphone to a database located on cloud servers. If there is no local signal available, the app will cache the data and connect later.”


Fluke currently offers more than 30 test tools that communicate wirelessly with smartphones and tablets, including digital multimeters, infrared cameras, alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) clamps, AC and DC voltage modules, K-type thermocouple thermometers, vibration meters, and process calibrators.


To illustrate the benefits of wireless capabilities, for example, Fluke Connect AC and temperature modules, connected to a motor 20 feet from the operator’s location, send test results to a smartphone while a digital multimeter measures voltage at the switch. The app simultaneously displays voltage, current and temperature, for the electrician to read and react to as the motor operates.


“If the technician is not able to observe the problem, he can set the modules to log over time, lock down the electrical environment, come back after an appropriate period of time, and wirelessly download the log file to the phone or tablet,” Neeley said. “The readings can be saved to a log file for that motor, for anyone else on the team to access via the smartphone app or desktop browser. The readings also can be emailed to a foreman or contractor to support quick decision-making. Bottom line: No writing readings down, no data entry, no errors, plus proof of work, all while using the same type of test tools that electricians are already familiar with.”


[SB]The new family of Fluke Connect test tools has built-in radios, enabling direct communication between the test tool and the smartphone or tablet, independent of any network connection. According to product specifications, distances of effective communication range from a maximum of 65 feet in open, unobstructed areas to 20 feet when obstructed by drywall and about 11 feet when obstructions are concrete walls or steel electrical enclosures.


A Wi-Fi or cellular connection is used to upload data from the smartphone or tablet to cloud-based servers.


“Fluke Connect test tools can transmit several types of data, which varies by individual tool,” Neeley said. “In general, the tools can transmit the test result and the time the reading was taken and transmitted. For some devices, a running log of time-stamped measurements can be transmitted, allowing correlation from several measurement devices to look for interrelated events.”


The total list of measurement types includes voltage, current (single- or three-phase), temperature, vibration values, thermal images and ohms (insulation resistance).


While measurement and time/date stamp and autosave function is a significant improvement over writing information down, it becomes even more powerful for users when the transmitted measurement data can be organized and presented in a way that makes sense to the maintenance team.


“Software can turn the collected data into visual dashboards, allowing limits to be set and easy-to-see alarms displayed from the data gathered over time,” Neeley said.


There is a growing understanding in maintenance and reliability circles that communication contributes as much as 80 percent to the success or failure of a service maintenance program.


“Wireless connectors enable that communication and provide a critical element to address the growing trend of ‘fixing it before it breaks,’” Neeley said.


Flir wireless testers include flexible clamp meters, digital multimeters, clamp meters, power clamp meters and insulation meters. Flir wireless meters also can communicate with thermal cameras equipped with Meterlink through Bluetooth to distances of 30 feet, depending on site conditions, said Sam Ruback, Flir product manager for test and measurement.


“They communicate in two ways,” he said. “If a meter has data-recording capabilities, it can download the data that is stored on another meter, and our meters also stream the data to a mobile device. The information transferred is a numerical value and units. There is a limitation on how much memory we have within a meter, which limits the amount of data points that is recorded. Our digital multimeters with Bluetooth functionality can store up to 20,000 points.”


According to Ruback, the benefits of wireless communicating test equipment are the following:


  • Safety—Hook up meter, step back and hit the switch, get a reading away from the meter and electrified equipment.

  • Convenience—At times, clamp meters are in a position where it is hard to see the reading once the meter is hooked up. Sometimes tests must be made on equipment that moves, so instead of walking next to the equipment, the technician can view readings on a mobile device.

  • Take readings from closed cabinets—Connect the meter, close the electrical cabinet door, and receive readings from a distance without putting on personnel protective equipment.

  • Simultaneous readings—See multiple readings on one screen for faster and easier evaluation of three-phase or complex systems.

  • Easier analysis—See readings change on the equipment while adjusting the controls without having to go back and forth between controls and equipment.


Ruback is confident advances will continue with wireless-enabled testers.


“We continue to develop wireless functionality to build solutions to meet our customers’ needs,” he said.


AEMC testers with wireless communication capabilities are energy loggers, digital multimeters, clamp-on meters, ground-resistance testers and air quality meters. Communication is by Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Class 1 and Class II Bluetooth radios are available, and they provide reaches of 30 to 300 feet, respectively, in free space.


“We communicate measurements and reading in real time, we can send text messages on alarm conditions,” said John Olobri, AEMC director of sales and marketing. “We can display real-time grand graphs and can configure the instrument. Data limitations primarily are in the area of time it takes to download data. For example, power quality recorded data is very memory intensive and can take several hours to download. Therefore, we have taken the position to only download real-time measurements to be stored on smartphones and tablets. When it is a PC that the instrument is communicating wirelessly, there is no restriction.”


Olobri said the tool allows the operator to work with the equipment while outside of the hazardous area requiring personal protective equipment. Looking ahead, he expects to see transmission advance distances and speeds.


Dranetz Technologies offers wireless communication capabilities on its HDPQ family of power quality and demand and energy instruments.


“The instruments communicate both by Bluetooth and Wi-Fi,” said Ross Ignall, Dranetz director of product management. “Range is limited by the communication technologies, not the instruments. Volume of data is unlimited because it is treated as an IP connection.


“The primary benefit of testers that communicate wirelessly is productivity, allowing users to be remote from the job site. They can do other work and check in on their monitoring remotely from anywhere with connectivity to the instrument.”


About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Griffin, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.

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