Machine-to-Machine: Dollars and Sense

Taking the long view from the beginning ensures long-term cost savings.

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Taking the long view from the beginning ensures long-term cost savings.

By Shawn Lemley

The Department of Defense (DoD) accounts for some 63 percent of the energy consumed by federal facilities and buildings. This makes the DoD the single largest energy consumer in the U.S., even though it consumes only 1 percent of national site-delivered energy. Recent DoD annual spending on facility energy has averaged over $3.4 billion.

In response to this and other factors, The DoD Energy Manager's Handbook (August 2005) was created to help DoD installation and facility energy managers meet the market's challenges. Part IV of the handbook addresses life cycle costing. As part of the analysis for life cycle costing, the government has implemented a target of 10 years or less simple payback for approval of projects.

Recently, wireless communications system provider Terra Ferma was tasked with the design and implementation of multiple wireless mesh machine-to-machine (M2M) networks for the DoD. The project entailed implementing a secure, wireless network in support of advanced meter reading and building automation systems in campus environments on multiple military installations across the U.S. This project came with many challenges-such as network security, remote locations, budget considerations and long-term viability.

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What is Machine-to-Machine?

The answer to this question varies widely, depending on the industry served. The most basic definition, however, would be communications between machines; the purpose is to provide timely data/information that can be acted on-whether by human or machine. This is a simple definition, but like any network, it's not simple to design and implement. The steps of M2M communications are straightforward-collection of data, transmission of data, assessment of data and the response to the data.

The number of options in each step can be overwhelming, but taking the long view narrows the field of options. There is always a best choice, regardless of the application being supported-whether it is energy management, biomedical or security. If the full life cycle consequences are not considered from the beginning, the results can be an ineffective network at a high cost.

Taking the long view means considering the full life cycle-designing, installing/integrating and supporting the network. If the infrastructure, such as meters for collection and wired/wireless communications, is poorly done, the effectiveness of the entire M2M project is jeopardized.

Design Smart

Networks must be designed to fit all aspects of a project while staying within budget. The best design always takes into account the cost of the long view-up to 10 years-and how much it will cost to build, install and maintain. Design smart means to create a design that is consistent across the network. Networks designed for the long term use open standards and avoid technical lock-ins, thereby avoiding a complicated integration and costly future upgrades.

Simplified installations are possible when a consistent design for all components is used. Consistent design means fewer surprises and quicker installs, and results in lower labor costs with maximum benefit. In addition to the simplified install, network quality and reliability should be hallmarks of a smart design.

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Challenges of the Department of Defense Project

The first challenge in the DoD project was to create the mechanism for collecting data. The goal of M2M hardware-meters and network infrastructure-is to bridge the intelligence in the machine with the communication network. It is important to design the network to accommodate any anticipated requirements, such as multiple meters sending a constant stream of real-time data, possibly simultaneously. In many cases, however, this may not be necessary or worth the cost. It is always advisable to minimize the amount of sent data by constantly reviewing and comparing the data against alarm limits and sending real time only when limits are exceeded.

The second challenge was to determine which options were best for transporting the data from the remote equipment-cellular, hardwired, wireless or satellite. Hardwired would be the best option, if already installed, but could be the most expensive if not already installed or if using leased lines such as telephone lines. If the location is within a cellular provider's coverage and the signal strength is adequate, the cellular method may fit best. There is, however, a monthly cost that must be considered. This is a popular method in commercial applications and, as a result, costs continue to drop.

From a DoD perspective, unfortunately, cellular is disqualified as a transport option because of information assurance requirements for wireless applications operating on a DoD facility, creating a third challenge. DoD security requirements specify Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) 140-2 AES 256 bit encryption (DoD Instruction 8420.01).

In addition to the security requirements, there was a fourth challenge of considerations to physical layout-distance, geography, etc.-and application-specific requirements. In this case-multiple campus environments-the user wanted to be able to make this network multipurpose. The network also needed to serve as a campus-wide wireless local area network (WLAN) to accommodate future applications. A private, secure WiFi-based network, therefore, was the best option.

The Solution for the Department of Defense

Terra Ferma deployed its Oak Series system for this project. The Oak Series' modular design offered flexibility and is rated to National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) 3R or 4X, depending on site and project requirements. These systems provide universal power capabilities-ac power with battery backup, solar power with battery storage, and a remote site option of wind and solar with battery storage. In addition, the Oak Series can house a multitude of radio types and configurations.

The configuration used in this project is a 2-feet-by-2-feet NEMA 3R environmentally controlled weather-proof enclosure including ac power with battery backup and the 3eTI 523-3 radio (802.11a/b/g/n)-all weighing less than 25 pounds. The 3eTI radios enable a multipurpose operation by simultaneously operating in bridge and access point modes. In addition, the 3eTI radios meet DoD security requirements with FIPS 140-2 and Common Criteria evaluation assurance level (EAL) 4. The multiple power options-ac, solar and wind (all with batteries)-along with NEMA 3R and/or 4X enclosures, provides the customer flexibility to place these units anywhere.

The Oak Series modularity enabled simple installation without sacrificing the flexibility. The system is built on an assembly line and configured to exact specifications at the factory. Each system arrives at the sites' locations preconfigured, which makes the installation into the enterprise network as simple as plug and play. The configuration of every unit across the network-multiple sites-is identical, affording significantly reduced system support and maintenance costs. It is almost "set it and forget it," but, if changes are necessary, all units can be remotely managed.


The DoD is now collecting the data from multiple meters-electric, water and gas-through a secure wireless infrastructure for transport to a centralized data acquisition server (DAS). Terra Ferma met the challenges for flexibility, simplicity and longevity in the M2M network design and implementation-ensuring a low-cost, secure network with the ability to easily grow and evolve as needs warrant without significant cost increases. As a result, the DoD will easily meet the target metric of simple payback within 10 years.

About the author: Shawn Lemley is director of business development for Terra Ferma. With 25 years' experience in the communications industry, Lemley has held engineering, sales, consulting and business development roles in telecom, defense and space, and healthcare. He served as satcom operator/technician in the U.S. Air Force and is a veteran of Desert Storm.

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