One of the best examples of automation in the last fifty years has been the rise of the self-service gas station. Now with Internet of Things (IoT) technology, the industry is looking at improve efficiency and safety in operations.
Despite high levels of tech in individual gas stations most outlets have a collection of old and new technology said Russell Dupuy, CEO of Australian company Environmental Monitoring Solutions, at the recent Sydney AWS Summit.
There's often a blend of technologies, from high tech to low tech and everything in between.
Knowing exactly what's inside a station's underground tanks is an essential part of running a gas station and, because of gaps between the technology, that usually means staff have to manually take measurements presenting risks ranging from being run over by inattentive drivers, fume inhalation or even being assaulted.
Meanwhile overfilled tanks – a typical gas station's tanks hold 150,000 litres (40,000 US gallons) – present fire and environmental risks while spillage and undetected leaks can damage the surrounding neighbourhood.
In some cases leaking tanks can take years to be detected with attendant risks to a company's reputation, as one Australian service station found when a young staff member nearly blew themselves up when they accidentally found a problem.
An apprentice on his break was having a cigarette in the park. He finished his cigarette and flicked it into what he thought was some surface water, thinking it would extinguish. He got superficial burns from the flash fire.
To deal with the lack of real time information Dupuy's company teamed up with technology partner DiUS Computing to 'remove the anomalies in the programs' through their Fuelscan data aggregator service which brings together data from the various new and old technologies to give gas station owners a better of idea of what's in their tanks.
Our job is to knit this information together in a way to help clients make informed decisions... We remove anomalies and lies in the data so clients can see what needs to be done.
DiUS Principal Consultant, Zoran Angelovsk joined Dupuy at the AWS session to explain what Fuelscan measures.
We start off with the tank gauges; as well as fuel levels, we can detect water and get a temperature reading. We connect to the pumps and they tell us what's been dispensed so we can close the loop.
The system has to cobble a lot of different data streams together, ranging from antiquated computer consoles to the current loop systems monitoring the pumps, tank measurement systems and then 3G and 4G connections to the cloud services that make up the back end of the Fuelscan system. Lightweight IoT standards like MQTT and NBIoT are also playing a bigger part in the technology mix.
After processing the data on various AWS services, the information is fed back to the service station where Angelovski believes operators will see immediate returns in reduced losses and maintenance problems.
We can look at pumps that are over and under dispensing and get maintenance to deal with that. Many problems are solved in a reactionary manner. If you have water in the tanks and a vehicle is damaged it can take three months to sift through the data. We'd like to move away from that and analyse the data in real time so we can avoid the incident occurring.
Looking towards the future Angelovski sees gas stations' fuel management systems becoming increasingly integrated into the retail aspects that are the bread and butter business of most outlets.
Fuel stations have become complete retail outlets so the next thing we are investigating is how to instrument other appliances in the field. Is there a business case, for instance, to instrument the refrigeration services? It's about applying the IoT to real world problems.
It's often surprising how rudimentary many industry's technology sets are when you get to glimpse behind the scenes so it's not unexpected to find the service station industry is running on a cobbled together collection of old and new equipment and standards.
Most industries live with that because the cost of replacing older systems. Many of them, such as gas station tank monitoring systems, are built into infrastructure, making it even more unlikely antiquated systems will be ripped out and replaced.
Fuelscan is one of the breed of retrofitting services made possible by cheap micro controllers and accessible cloud services. Their success, like those in other industries, is going to lie in how well they convince operators of the savings and efficiency benefits.
One thought though is how long a service catering to the fuel industry has to run in an era where electric vehicles are beginning to take over? For the moment this is a huge market, but it's also one that may not be around by the middle of the century.