The Hazards of Extreme Conditions
By Greg Quirk, Mouser Electronics
Space may be the final frontier, but that is not the only harsh environment that engineers are searching to understand. In the past, we were limited in how we could gather information due to a number of extraneous factors, such as extreme temperature or distance; but today there are components that can be combined to create solutions that overcome these obstacles. The following are just a few of the many challenges that engineers encounter.
Exploring extreme conditions is hazardous, not only for people, but for the equipment needed to gather the information. Take the example of monitoring the activity in a volcano. People are not able to physically monitor the situation and the equipment that can monitor the situation must be designed to withstand the high heat and corrosive influence of the area. However, it is vital to be able to gather this information to predict an eruption and warn the surrounding areas to prevent loss of life and property.
While wired transfer of information is possible, there are issues involved with this method as the cables must also be able to withstand the conditions. Wireless transmission is preferred to reduce the number of potentially impacted components and maintain a constant stream of data flow.
Similar to extreme heat, the same types of problems are encountered in extreme cold. However, there is the added issue of ice movement that makes wireless sensors much more reliable. For example, a melting ice block could cause cables to stretch and break if they are placed under stain, while a wireless system designed to operate at low temperatures can continue to provide the information.
Space exploration is really a combination of all of the other sections discussed. It is a culmination of the most extreme conditions that can be encountered, including temperature, and the need to operate autonomously.
Exploring the harshest conditions is not necessarily new technology, but we made do with less than we have today. Sputnik 1, the first man-made object to orbit the Earth, was launched in 1957. That was the first opportunity for scientists to explore the galaxy around us. Two years later the Luna 1 orbited the moon gathering more information. It took less than 60 years for probes to reach Mars.
In the past few years, additional probes have landed, and in fact, the space probe “Curiosity” has endured a nine month journey to the red planet. There have been considerable cost overruns to the project, and at more than $2.5 billion it is the most expensive mission to Mars yet.
As Curiosity was required to explore from the surface of Mars, countless analytical systems were engineered for the exploration, but first, Curiosity had to land. This task requires a number of automated systems because control signals cannot be sent and received fast enough over the distance to react to changing situations, as it takes nearly 14 minutes for signals to travel one way. The automated landing system has four main sections, including a guided entry, parachute decent, powered descent, and sky crane to lower the probe using cables. This sky crane has never been used before but was designed to provide a safe landing and not to disrupt the landing area so that future travel is successful.
Curiosity’s mission is to gather information from a much wider degree of the equator than ever before, with the ultimate goal of determining whether or not Mars is habitable and preparing for manned missions in the future. The information is communicated in two different ways. First, it is sent directly to Earth using an X band transmitter. Second, it is transmitted via UHF to other Mars orbiters.
Transporting natural resources, including oil and natural gas, from one location to another can require pipes stretching hundreds or thousands of miles. Natural resources generate trillions of dollars each year, but only if they can transport the resource.
Identifying issues with a lengthy underground pipe can be challenging, to say the least, and digging up an area can be quite costly. However, a broken pipe can lead to substantial damages to the environment and the company’s reputation, not to mention breech of contract as delivery will not be met. Unique systems have been created to deal with this hazardous situation. These systems monitor the flow of the resource through the pipe to compare results from what is expected to what is occurring and identify discrepancies due to blockages or leaks. This requires a combination of sensors and network infrastructure to gather and transmit the information and potentially even locate the cause of the problem.
To narrow down areas of concern, monitors can be installed throughout the pipeline to identify sections where pressure changes take place. A redundancy with both wired and wireless signals can also be implemented so that fewer repairs to the sensors are required.
A common theme throughout many hazardous conditions is the desire to transmit information wirelessly. At extreme distances, cables and installation can be costly. However, wireless transmissions can be placed on each sensor, or sensor cluster, to reduce the overall cost of the installation while still gathering the necessary data.
There are many different types of wireless systems and most have an advantage for specific situations. In some cases, a longer transmission distance is needed so higher frequencies are needed. In others, battery life is an important factor so that the sensors need to be replaced less often, even if it means that data is not transmitted as often. Other times, an extreme condition is a gating factor in choosing a solution. Even a wireless network has to be able to operate in such situations. There is no single solution that will always meet a situation. Fortunately that means that engineers will always have a critical role to play, not only in creating the solution, but also in selecting the correct one for each unique circumstance.
While there is no limit to the extreme conditions that are faced in an effort to gather critical data, there are solutions available. These solutions comprise a combination of high characteristics that enable them to withstand the conditions, as well as transmission methods, often using wireless protocols, to provide the needed data. Each situation encountered is different, meaning that while some similar components can be used in multiple locations, each time it requires engineers to customize and fine tune the system to work within the specific constraints. Given the extremes in these situations, failure can result in significant investment to repair or replace the system and can even put human lives at risk.
Greg Quirk has been a technical writer since 2004 focusing on semiconductor components, consumer devices and business trends. He has written numerous articles for industry publications and presented at technical conferences. His expertise has been sought by the financial community on multiple occasions to predict design-wins in popular consumer products.