Cyber threats morph again

25. April 2012 16:08

Hackers are using social media and less obvious technical exploits to target a wider variety of computer systems

In 2004, the SQL Slammer virus infected over 75,000 computers in the first ten minutes after a 17-year-old hacker unleashed it on the world from his bedroom. Many of those computers happened to be in critical infrastructure facilities, but it did not specifically target industrial control systems (ICS).

Six years later, the Stuxnet virus was discovered and wiped away any remaining illusions about the security of ICS or "security by obscurity."

Cyber security threats facing SCADA and other industrial control systems continue to evolve and hacking techniques have shifted from frontal assaults to more stealthy approaches. That's the outlook from Jonathan Pollet of Red Tiger Security, and an instructor at SANS.

"Denial-of-service attacks are less common now," explained Pollet.

Instead, hackers now look to quietly plant bugs that remain on computer systems below the security radar so that they can collect more information about the target system and construct more sophisticated attacks.

They are also making increasing use of new technologies as well as good old fashioned social engineering to gain information about the systems they want to infiltrate.

One test conducted by security researchers used a stock photo of a pretty model and a bogus profile to build a network of high-ranking military and government figures. Within two months "Robin Sage" had not only built a formidable number of friends but was also able to get many of them to share sensitive information about the systems they worked with.

"Robin" was a guy, by the way—a small irony in a much larger story, but it points to the capacity for deception that lies in social media networks.

Pollet outlined a few best practices (e.g., white listing, device-level firewalls and simply using the authentication capabilities that come with the given system). These can at least keep ICS safe from novices hacking after school. But he also suggested ICS operators go on the offensive and start collecting information not only on cyber security threats and software loopholes but also on the groups who might seek to do them harm.

No system is entirely secure, but as cyber security threats continue to evolve in tandem with the technologies we use in our daily lives, it makes sense that ICS operators would want to move toward a more pro-active posture.


Power gen big and small

25. April 2012 15:15

ABB's investments in power generation run the gamut

On the way into the convention center this morning I encountered an inquisitive barista at the Starbucks outpost who asked me about the conference, what ABB does, etc. He asked about energy storage devices, namely flywheels, and I told him I knew that they were used in some applications but couldn't say exactly what. Little did I know that I'd soon be able to answer his question more precisely.

A few hours later I visited the power generation area of the Technology & Solutions Center to get some information on Symphony Plus, ABB's control system for power plants. The product featured in Joe Hogan's keynote at last year's event as well as this one.

In nutshell, ABB has invested in a complete overhaul of Symphony in response to market conditions that make extending the life of existing power plants--and the control systems that run them--preferable to building new ones. Symphony Plus offers a variety of new applications (e.g., lifetime equipment monitoring, new turbine control and automation capabilities) but it is backward-compatible with previous versions.

It's also more scalable--a response in part to the trend in renewable generation facilities that tend to be smaller. And speaking of renewables....

My host next introduced me to Alan Longworthy, CEO of Power Corp, a recent ABB acquisition in Australia. He spun a compelling tale about how remote communities and industrial facilities that rely on diesel generation can mitigate the supply risk and price volatility associated with liquid fuels by exploiting the wind and solar resources that are often available in abundance in these locations. In fact, Longworthy said that fuel savings of 50 to 60 percent are possible.

The challenge, he said, is integration with the existing power system. Power Corp has worked out the kinks, however, and Longworthy is very bullish on the ability of wind and solar to compete with diesel generation--without subsidies. He also sees potential in the rising interest in microgrids, with military bases leading the way.

The variability of wind and solar is a well-known conundrum, the solution to which is energy storage and this brings me back to my Starbucks encounter. Power Corp's storage solution? Flywheels.

Power Corp's renewable generation + flywheel solution is already in place in a number of remote locations, including McMurdo Station in Antarctica, and we might see it being implemented closer to home in the near future.


Putting robots in harm's way and keeping miners safe

25. April 2012 14:32

Using robots to apply thin spray-on liners in hard rock mining

Everyone is aware of the hazards related to mining. Post-blasting is one of the key hazards, because walls and ceiling need to be supported so that they don't collapse and harm the miners.

The ground support involves drilling holes into the rock and large bolts 8-12 feet long are inserted. This is done keeping the miners at a safe distance from the unsupported ground. Workers are not permitted to work under unsupported ground.

In combination with bolts, mesh and shotcrete provide the best support available. Some of the deepest mines that reach down to 10,000-12,000 feet use this method. The deepest mine in the world is TauTona in Carletonville, South Africa at 12,795 feet. The deepest hard rock mine in North America is LaRonde mine near Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec at about 9,800 feet down. The deepest nickel mine in Ontario is Creighton mine Sudbury, Ontario at 7,840 ft.

Another solution, Thin Spray on Liners, has fewer handling issues than shotcrete and has been tested since 1996. The 3M 3M Polymeric Composite Membrane, or PCM, is superior in many ways to existing products and is the focus of the current trials. The liner’s bright colour makes it highly visible and may lead to a brighter mine environment. It is sprayed onto rock that has no support to restrain falling debris. The product sets within minutes and progressively increases in strength.

The robot must maintain a specific distance while spraying and the entire surface area needs to be covered. The underground mining environment is dark, hot, damp/wet, dirty and dusty. The application of any type of ground support is by its nature dangerous.

Some of the first robots ever developed were designed to paint objects in harsh conditions using hazardous chemicals. Today's robots are easy to use and operate, and can be reprogrammed again and again to perform many different tasks. Most ABB models are available in foundry versions that can withstand the harshest environments.

Robots are:
Very good at doing the same task over and over
Precise in their positioning and application
Designed to operate in harsh environments

The Deep Mining Research Consortium is based in Sudbury, Ontario. Members include: Agnico-Eagle, Barrick Gold, CANMET, Rio Tinto, Vale Sudbury, Vale Thompson and Xstrata Copper and Xstrata Nickel. The Consortium's involvement is to prove that applying the thin spray solution is superior to other systems in terms of rock restraining properties. Robots are being used to prove their viability, performance and ease of use in this harsh environment. The consortium also aims to prove that the liner meets or exceeds all Safety, Health and Environmental requirements.

Currently, trials are taking place in which material is being applied in areas where the possibility of a rock burst is highly likely. The goal is to secure the proof needed and successfully complete the study.

Why endanger human lives when a robot can easily go where no one should?

 mining robotics 

How sensitive is your bottom line to rising energy costs?

25. April 2012 14:20

In a recent ARC Advisory Group survey, more than half the companies in a broad range of industries indicated that energy is more than 15 percent of their production costs.

The continuously increasing price of energy, coupled with extreme price volatility, has pushed energy high on the agendas of utilities and industry today– on par with traditional management concerns such as quality, availability and market responsiveness. This is especially important to industries with tighter margins, where the smallest cost variability can batter profitability.

How do you desensitize manufacturing operations from energy price volatility and increases?
According to the ARC’s Himanshu Shah, best-in-class manufacturers are making energy efficiency an integral part of their production processes. This means assessing how and where energy is being used, constantly measuring performance, and setting key performance indicators that ensure energy use is linked to business targets.
ARC ‘s research indicates that the biggest returns come from a systems based approach, rather than simply replacing components. For example, replacing a failed motor with a new, higher efficiency motor can create around 6-8% energy savings. However, adding a variable speed drive to create a motor drive system can create as much as 30 percent energy savings in certain applications and can pay for itself in energy savings in less than one year.
Considering that energy costs are around 90-95 percent of the total lifetime costs for a motor, this can provide a substantial hedge against rising energy costs and volatility. The ARC survey indicated that 84 percent of firms investing in energy efficiency are using variable speed drive solutions.
Such systems-based solutions provide a competitive edge beyond simply cost. A company who uses energy efficiently has better pricing flexibility, without sacrificing margin, in times of turmoil. That can help grow market share when less efficient competitors have to pass through energy price increases to their customers.


SCADA in unconventional oil and gas

25. April 2012 11:47

Technology advances are helping producers of coal bed methane (CBM) and shale oil and gas increase production and improve safety while decreasing costs

The implementation of directional and horizontal wells has been a boon to the unconventional upstream sector. This arrangement offers a significant number of benefits, including:
  • Fewer wells per section
  • Larger reservoir exposure per well
  • Higher production per well
  • Simpler logistics (one pad controller for up to 20 wells)
  • Fewer gathering systems
  • Lower environmental impact
  • Reduced CAPEX and OPEX costs
  • Reduced safety hazards

These wellheads can be grouped together, taking up less land area and requiring less equipment. In addition to the reduced CAPEX and OPEX costs, these wells can access difficult-to-reach reservoirs.

Directional drilling exposes more of the producing zone, and hydraulic fracturing allows trapped oil and gas to migrate to the wellbore. Production rates in these types of wells are typically 10 to 20 percent higher than in traditional vertical wells.

The most recent production technology is the "pad" concept, in which multiple directional wells produce from one location. All measurement and control functions are done through one RTU. This arrangement provides better security, increased safety, and lower CAPEX/OPEX. And because the pad uses common separators and gas treatment for all the wells, it reduces cost and environmental footprint.

SCADAvantage™ from ABB works extremely well for this scenario. The system provides data gathering and interfacing to production and accounting software. In addition, it is scalable, with the ability to easily add new wells to the SCADA system without having to rely on vendor support.

Pumpers can log on to the system in the morning from their homes and plan their day based on real-time data. Managers and engineers can log on to analyze data and troubleshoot. SCADAvantage integrates with other applications using open, real-time, international standards of connectivity, such as ODBC, OLEDB and OPC.
These and other features make SCADAvantage an efficient and cost-effective choice to make the most of the latest technology for the onshore production of unconventional oil and gas.

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