Rugged devices are a given in the oil and gas industry. The workday is long, harsh and unapologetic. It can mean 120 degrees on the deck of an oil rig by mid-morning or sub-freezing cold on an all-terrain vehicle, checking miles of snow-covered pipeline. The only thing that's sensitive in this business is the flammable substance that drives it.
"We're seeing a lot more people realize that, 'Hey, we're giving our employees electronic devices, and we need to be a little safer in these environments,'" says Mike McMahon, director of workforce automation at Panasonic. "And it's not just the oil and gas business. It's people who fuel up jetliners at airports. A lot of military people would use mobile devices on aircraft carriers for fueling up fighter jets, or in submarines. The list goes on and on, to any environment where there's potential for an explosive reaction."
In such potentially explosive environments, many businesses are turning to hardware with the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations designation of Class 1, Division 2 (also identified as UL 1604). Class 1 refers to locations where flammable gasses may be present in quantities sufficient to produce an explosion. Division 2 denotes an environment where flammable gasses, vapors, liquids or combustible dust or fibers aren't likely to be present. (The more stringent Division 1 is for environments where the latter often exist under normal conditions.)
McMahon says UL 1604 designation is becoming more important as the workloads of engineers and technicians become more diverse. Rich Perley, VP of marketing at rugged computer maker Augmentix, says he's noticing the same evolution. "[Employees are] multi-tasking, rather than doing single-purpose work such as maintenance on a rig, for example. They'll have additional responsibilities now, such as inventory, inspections and reporting."
Augmentix customers are predominantly military, but Perley says their needs are in line with those of oil and gas customers. In addition to durability, Augmentix customers expose their devices to a high "potential for drops, potential for damage from contaminants such as hydraulic fluids, petroleum and things that can corrode paint, or corrode exteriors on the products." Screens that are viewable in direct sunlight, larger screens for running multiple applications and strong processing capabilities are other features customers want from their Class 1, Division 2 hardware.
How likely, really, is a device to provoke an explosion?
"It can be as simple as dropping your laptop," say McMahon. "Some of them have magnesium lids, and if they fall and hit another piece of metal, it could spark and have disastrous results. Or, you've heard the stories of these lithium-ion batteries around the world that have had some challenges. They'll actually take out an entire notebook."
Hard drives can be culprits, too, as they create static electricity. Not to be forgotten are fans. "A typical mainstream laptop has a fan and it's made of plastic and - I'm not trashing them, they're fine products for what they are - they're just not made to be in explosive environments."
Safety Is In the Details
Panasonic meets the UL 1604 standard, in part, through the materials it chooses; this includes the strategic use of leather to deter sparking.
The company also feels secure in its build quality. Components are designed, engineered, assembled, tested and repaired exclusively in Panasonic's factories, says McMahon.
Augmentix works closely with Dell. "We completely reengineer a lot of the mechanical structural [components]. The entire enclosure is actually our design, and the way we mount internally, and the way we manage thermals," says Perley. "So we use a lot of the [Dell] core components, but a lot of the structural elements are Augmentix's design."
The elements for meeting 1604 compliance were part of the original design, he adds.
Perley says the Dell core, in fact, enables customers to deploy both commercial Dell notebooks and the Augmentix XTG and have a single I.T. platform to support, a single training program, a single warranty program, etc.
General Dynamics Itronix Corp. also competes in this space; its GoBook MR-1 is a rugged UMPC that's UL 1604 compliant. Simply put, "The goal of the [Class 1, Division 2] standard is to ensure that the unit will not create a spark while in use," says Tim Hill, manager of product marketing for General Dynamics Itronix. "We design our products using specific materials that do not spark when the unit is dropped. In addition, we ensure that all internal connections can withstand drops without becoming disconnected. A disconnection could cause a spark."
Making all of this mobility truly possible, of course, is wireless connectivity, and Sierra Wireless creates wireless modems that are Class 1, Division 2 compliant. Its AirLink Raven modem is embedded with Sierra Wireless ALEOS technology, which enables it to offer "exceptionally intelligent" wireless networking capabilities, including remote monitoring and configuration. Norse Pipeline, for example, which has gas pipelines spanning 2.1 million acres, uses the AirLink Raven to supply its technicians with updated pipeline information every 15 minutes.
Dan Egan, field systems engineer for Sierra Wireless, says the need for UL 1604 compliance in a modem comes down, again, to sparking, which can occur when unplugging or plugging in. Not all Sierra customers care about the specification but, "You want to make your device as safe as possible," says Egan. "Any manufacturer that's selling the oil and gas industry should [have the Class 1, Division 2 designation]. If they don't already have it, they're going to have to have it."