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Blackberry’s modules can store tons of data and transmit it when vehicles return to areas with cellular connections. (image: Blackberry)

Connecting off-highway vehicles in remote locations

It’s not easy to cost-effectively connect commercial and off-highway vehicles that often operate in remote areas. When vehicles are out of cellular range, owners who can’t justify the cost of satellite links have to employ a range of concepts to collect data.

Vehicle and equipment makers have developed a number of programs for filling the gaps when cellular-based telematic links aren’t available. Users in large, remote sites like mining can often justify the cost of satellite connections, which can be too expensive for fleets that are only sporadically out of cellular range. OEMs typically support a broad range of technologies, letting owners and operators make their decisions.

“Caterpillar offers both cellular and satellite devices to help ensure coverage no matter what the locale,” said Jason Hurdis, Global Market Professional, Caterpillar Inc. “Wi-Fi devices and the ability to retrieve telematics data with a customer wireless network are also available as a custom solution.”

Designing a number of options requires a number of steps. Modems and software must handle multiple protocols, and agreements with service providers are often needed. Connectivity is changing many OEM business models, forcing manufacturers to partner with multiple service providers. Most companies are creating ecosystems, partnering with cloud providers, data analytic companies and communication providers. 

“Devices need to support as many cellular standards and frequency bands as possible and provide the possibility to switch between them,” said Jose Ogara, Product Manager at TTControl. “In terms of infrastructure, it is important to be able to work with multiple carriers, therefore strong partnerships are needed. Data roaming between operators is a must in an industry that is defined by mobility.”

Users typically want consistent information about operating parameters, not just data available when the vehicle’s close to a cell tower. One solution is to store files and transfer them when the vehicle’s back in a coverage area.

“We collect data in five-minute increments,” said Philip Poulidis, General Manager of BlackBerry Radar. “If the signal is not there, we record the data, including GPS data. When the vehicle goes into an area with a signal, it’s uploaded. We can store enough data for the full battery lifetime, eight years.”

It may also be viable to use other vehicles in the fleet to relay messages to one that’s within range. For example, an agricultural fleet spread across a large area could be connected so they can send files to each other, eventually getting to a vehicle or home base that is linked to the Internet or a cellular network.

“In rural areas with no cell coverage, you may want to use vehicle-to-vehicle communications,” said Mamatha Chamarthi, ZF’s Chief Digital Officer. “You can create a mesh network, sending data from vehicle to vehicle until one gets to a point where there’s cellular coverage.”

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