Fiber Optics’ Role in the Insurance Internet of Things

The unmatched advantage of fiber optics is that, unlike discrete sensors that have to be placed on the precise detection spot, linear fiber sensors utilize the entire length as a continuous detector to provide hundreds of separate sensing points.

(Image credit: Dollar Photo Club.)

The benefits of using fiber optics for communications are well known; less known is that the same types of fibers can provide a remote warning of conditions leading to potential losses. Although this technology is already used in applications such as oil and gas drilling operations and fire detection in highway tunnels where averting adverse situations is critical, it is largely untapped by another industry largely focused on prevention: insurance. Insurers can profit by including fiber optic sensing in their data-driven, Internet-of-Things (IoT) loss control resources.

The rationale for fiber optics in the insurance IoT is as straightforward as Ben Franklin’s famous adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Linear fiber sensing systems can be used to predict exactly when and where preventive action will be required, decreasing the risk of losses and reducing maintenance costs.  These systems will monitor in real time how machinery is functioning, identify changing conditions, process the data to predict wear, anticipate potential failure, and prevent other high-risk situations.

(Related: Just How Much Could the Internet of Things Change Insurance?)

The unmatched advantage of fiber optics over other sensor technology is that, unlike discrete sensors that have to be placed on the precise detection spot, linear fiber sensors use standard communication grade fibers, utilizing the entire length as a continuous detector to provide hundreds of separate sensing points.  Minute changes along the fiber caused by temperature or vibrations affect the photons traveling through that section and provide the desired information. The exact location and type of equipment being monitored can be displayed on a facility’s control system or on a mobile app for loss reduction and physical asset protection.

Two types of linear fiber optic sensing systems ideal for loss control applications are Distributed Temperature Sensing (DTS) and Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS).

In this article we provide an example, showing how DTS can be used for loss control and risk reduction in the food industry by utilizing the optical fibers’ ability to detect temperature changes as little as 0.5°C (1°F).

Refrigeration Systems

Despite the advances in refrigeration systems condition monitors and controls, spoilage continues to occur in just about all types of businesses that use refrigeration. Spoilage can happen very quickly if proper temperatures are not maintained due to loss of refrigeration. The major causes of spoilage today continue to be electrical power supply outages and mechanical failure of refrigeration equipment.[1]

A DTS system can be deployed with relative simplicity to detect multiple aspects of a refrigeration system including the internal temperatures of the refrigerator space, leakage of refrigerant, and the operating temperatures of compressors and other machinery.  A single DTS channel can detect temperatures along up to 40 km (25 miles) of fiber cable with 1000 different sensing points or zones.  One single cable routed through multiple refrigeration systems will decrease the cost of implementation and increase the return on investment of this versatile technology.  The DTS system’s graphic user interface is flexible in that it can provide real-time temperature information in a meaningful manner including a user’s choice of alarm panels, charts and graphical representations of the actual facility among other visualization capabilities.

Routing the fiber optic cable inside the refrigeration space will accurately measure the temperature of all zones and alert facilities’ control of adverse conditions including rate of temperature change due to power loss as different areas of the refrigerator will warm at dissimilar rates and products spoil at different temperatures. It also provides a thermal map of the space, allowing for better ventilation control and placement of goods to insure even cooling.

A single DTS system can be configured to monitor the refrigerator temperature and then routed next to the piping containing the refrigerant to detect leaks. The DTS can be programmed to differentiate between normal temperature fluctuations and changes denoting a problematic condition including loss of pressure due to compressor malfunction.

An increase in the temperature of motors and compressors may indicate wear.  Placing the fiber optic cable in proximity of the equipment will predict pending failure and trigger warnings of required maintenance.  Data can be collected and analyzed to identify trends leading to equipment malfunction.

The lessons learned in over a decade of implementing DTS in the oil & gas and transportation industries can be readily applied to reduce, and potentially eliminate losses in the food industry: “A gram of prediction is worth a kilogram of cure…”

In the next articles we will examine other examples of fiber optic sensors’ applications for loss prevention.

Part II: Fiber sensors for pipelines leakage detectionGas and oil leaks from pipelines cause loss of product, environmental damage, and in some cases loss of life. In 2011 a pipeline ruptured in Alberta, Canada releasing 28,000 barrels of crude oil in a wilderness area, closing the line for 188 days, and costing the Alberta economy an estimated $ 826 million. Fiber optic sensors can detect leakage in real time and in many cases predict the formation of conditions that will evolve in a leak of fluid or gas.

Part III: Fiber Optic Gas Detection for LNG operations—In 2013 there were 42 liquid natural gas (LNG) powered vessels in service.  DNV BV estimates that 1800 vessels will be in service by 2020, with some forecasts putting that number at nearly 10,000. Natural gas is becoming the preferred fuel not only in the marine industry but for power generation and many other transport applications, requiring an extensive distribution, storage, and refueling infrastructure. An LNG leak can rapidly create an explosive environment; many conventional sensing technologies are inadequate to accurately detect these conditions. Fiber optic sensors can be effectively implemented for risk reduction by identifying the leakage location and the natural gas concentration in the surrounding environment.

[1] Loss of Refrigeration – It Could Spoil Your Day, ©2010 The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company.

Giovanni Tomasi // Giovanni Tomasi, CEO/CTO of RSL Fiber Systems, LLC, has been in the fiber optic industry since 1982, leading projects including the development of cables for US Navy ships and for the NASA Space Station. He founded RSL Fiber Systems in 2001 applying fiber optics to solve “impossible” lighting problems on US Navy vessels, developing the topside lighting for the DDG 1000 stealth destroyers.  In 2012 the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health contracted RSL to evaluate fiber optic sensing to enhance safety in coal mines, prompting the company’s expansion into distributed fiber optic sensing systems.

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