A network that monitors itself

Digitalization is boosting the flows of energy and data. With intelligent cables and a new ecosystem, LEONI is looking to ensure that data and power grids can become more efficient and more reliable.

Service tech Christian T. pulls the plug and hooks it back on the charging point. Should be enough for the next 250 km, he doesn’t need to go any further today. He paid the fuel charge with his phone about ten minutes ago, so he’s now good to go. But no sooner than he’s back behind the wheel, he gets a text: “Water intrusion threat, node DE-CIX1, EV cable 3, section C1, position 331.” Christian T. knows what that means: an electricity cable is damaged at one of the continent’s largest Internet nodes. He quickly confirms the callout and he’ll be onsite in 15 minutes. A few years back, he would have had to spend time looking for the damaged part of the cable. Not any more: it was the intelligent cable itself that texted him, and was not only able to detect the ingress of water but also to pinpoint the exact site on the cable.

While this story is admittedly just that, a story, it reflects the growing dependency of our modern society on the continuous flows of data and energy. It’s logical that electric vehicles need electricity. Less obvious is the fact that electricity from renewables also needs to be fed to the EV quick-charge point: given the fluctuations in solar and wind power, this is a complex control task that cannot work without a constant flow of information between producers and consumers. And even the charging of an electric vehicle can’t start without data exchange in the background: it’s not as if the charging point takes cash, after all.

As citizens of Society 4.0, almost all areas of our lives now need power and data grids to function: at work, at home, and out and about. And wireless communications and inductive power transmission handle only a relatively small part of these steadily spreading networks: both are used in situations where either the distance is comparatively short or the data transfer rate is relatively low. But if large volumes of data or electricity need to be transmitted very quickly and securely, a cable is often the only option. 5G is a good example here. While this cellular network of the future can handle bandwidths of up to 10 gigabits per second, the antennas need to be set up much closer together than with the current LTE technology, and also need to be connected to the primary network by a high-speed optical fiber network.

Massive expansions to data and power grids are now being pursued in Germany, Europe and all over the world to meet this rising demand for wired networks. And all of this doesn’t just apply to public grids but also to the kinds of networks used for machinery, plant, robots and in-vehicle systems. While this trend is good news for LEONI, the aim here isn’t to sell as many metres of cable as possible but to offer solutions that are optimised for the various applications. This is why we’re setting up a simulation platform that can replicate and optimise the topology of complex networks as ‘digital twins’ – and independently of the actual or expected flows of energy and data when in real-world operation. A key element of the platform is a comprehensive library of physical models for all network components, including the typical consumer or converter units. With the help of the individual elements in this library, it will soon be possible to perform rapid functional simulations with the aim of avoiding both over-dimensioning and bottlenecks.

Once the cables are installed, only one thing is then important: trouble-free operation. This is handled by the self-monitoring, intelligent LEONiQ cable. In technical terms, this is a miniature coax cable with a diameter of less than a millimetre, which can be integrated into virtually any cable system.  At a configurable interval, a signal is then sent down the coax, which is then analysed by an electronics module no bigger than a USB flash drive. This can of course be integrated into existing electronics. By analysing changes in the signal, a number of key parameters such as temperature, tightness and mechanical stress can be monitored along the entire length of cable. As one example, any ‘hot spots’ in the cable can be detected and localised on account of the increase in temperature. Preventive maintenance can then be performed – just as described in our introductory story. While similar solutions based on fiber-optic sensor technology already existed in the past, they were very expensive and therefore economically justifiable only in a handful of use cases. Since LEONiQ technology is copped-based, however, there are now no barriers to large-scale use for a huge variety of applications.

The last but certainly not least important part of our overall solution for an intelligent and learning system for energy and data transmission is our cloud-based solution for data analysis. Beyond their current use in functional monitoring, the state data can supply important information over the long term that can be used for further optimisations to existing cable solutions or comparable applications yet to be developed.  Step by step, we are developing the application-specific algorithms for analysis and prediction, plus the feedback for optimising our digital models into a learning system.

Thanks to our long experience in fields as diverse as automotive, energy engineering and robotics, as well as many other industries, LEONI’s developers can now apply their substantial domain know-how to the establishment of this digital ecosystem. Even more important is being able to identify leading technology partners in individual industries, however. We are convinced that the intelligent cable offers considerably potential for productivity. Over the next few months, we will be using this blog to report regularly on new projects and application scenarios. We hope to welcome you back as a reader – and, ideally, as a partner who shares our enthusiasm and wants to join us to play a part in shaping the digital transformation of energy and data transmission.

Torsten Schierholz
Chief Solutions Officer