On September 22nd and 23rd, the first-ever dedicated IoT Security conference and exhibition will take place in Boston.
While at first glance this may appear to concern a specific and rather specialized area, the relationship of the Internet of Things to the broad issue of human security may well prove much more far-reaching and fundamental.
After all, the development of the Internet itself was driven by a Cold War desire to create resilient computer networks that could withstand a nuclear attack. This threat inspired a whole new architecture for sharing and protecting information – one that was intentionally decentralized.
History suggests that precaution can be a key driver of technological innovation. In changing things to protect them, we often open up unforeseen new opportunities.
Which is why, if we return to 2015, there is something fascinating in seeing the same decentralized architectures applied to real-world infrastructures in the name of collective safety.
“When you apply this kind of Internet-type architecture to core infrastructure — whether it’s water or energy or transportation – these systems start looking a lot more like the Internet,” says John Miri, Chief Administrative Officer at the Lower Colorado River Authority (LRCA) and a speaker at this month’s Boston event. “You start to see water systems, flood data systems and, hopefully, electric grids that are less centralized, more resilient and more difficult to disrupt.”
The LCRA is an 80-year-old institution with roots in the Great Depression, entrusted with providing reliable water, flood protection and electricity to Central Texas and beyond. The areas LCRA serves covers a number of the fastest growing cities in the United States, meaning LCRA faces some pretty substantial demands on its infrastructure.
“Providing the water and power to support growing communities and a growing business and industrial base is no small task,” Miri says. Indeed, LCRA has broken ground on a quarter of a billion dollar new reservoir, the region’s first new water supply in decades.
Many of these additional demands make safety and security more important than ever.
“LCRA is now the second largest electric transmission utility in Texas. Our high tension transmission lines go across a large portion of the state. Protecting the electric grid is a pretty hot topic,” Miri says.
These hypothetical threats encompass what Miri calls “bad actors,” but also less hypothetical threats to the infrastructure.
“When you have a flood, we may have to intentionally shut down electric substations. Everyone knows electricity and water don’t mix – but even having the situational awareness to know that water is approaching a substation is very important to us in keeping the lights on. Using these kinds of smart networks to get a better picture of the threats and dangers to the power grid helps us protect it rather than just saying ‘build more,’” Miri says.
Similarly, a vast number of sensors throughout its Hydromet network enable LCRA to better monitor water levels – and to effectively manage floods.
“By adopting a new, more open, shared technology approach, we could expand the infrastructure we have for flood data collection at a 90% lower cost than if we had done it a traditional way. The technology actually opens up our infrastructure to a very wide region that never considered it before. We can offer a level of flood monitoring across a wider region and extend it rural and agricultural communities and other areas that might not have the resources to gain access to this technology.”
Looking ahead, Miri says, there are new opportunities to apply this decentralized, Internet-style architecture to other projects.
“I think when you look forward 10, 15 or 20 years, the whole infrastructure may work differently. It opens up new possibilities and business models that we didn’t have before. For instance, Texas is on the coast. As with any coastal area, we spend time thinking about desalination. Some of the work we’ve been doing on the Internet of Things is making people think, maybe we don’t need a couple of giant desalination plants – which has been the approach in Australia and Israel – but a number of smaller plants that are networked together, and share the water more efficiently. In the longer term, IoT may actually change the infrastructure itself, which would be very exciting.