Recently I have seen many articles on how the utilities need to modernize the operations technology (OT) that provides the command and control for their networks. These articles focus firstly on the massive machine type communications (M-MTC) enabled by IoT that provides utilities with real time data to allow them to increase the efficiency of their supply and distribution networks. Secondly on the video surveillance, perimeter intrusion detection and access control required to increase the physical security and safety of their assets.
Many of these articles move on to discuss how a next generation communications platform is required to connect all these diverse devices. What I have not seen in these articles is how utilities can use this next generation communication network to improve the productivity of the staff at remote locations.
A next generation communications platform is required to support advanced OT applications, this platform must be highly flexible and provide efficient real time communications for:
* The low bandwidth legacy devices, IEDs and networks like SCADA used by the current network
* The low bandwidth, but huge connectivity associated with the IoT devices providing the M-MTC and even mission critical machine type communications (C-MTC) associated with next generation OT applications
* The huge bandwidth required to backhaul the HD video associated with video surveillance
By definition, the communications platform must provide extremely secure communications with the ability to encrypt data and provide point of access firewalls and anomaly detection for the data it is transporting. In addition it must provide the ability to set-up different virtual private networks to provide logical isolation between for different types of data. With a few improvements, this flexible communications network can lend itself to providing applications that greatly improve the productivity of the staff at remote locations.
For example, I have seen demonstrations of augmented reality trouble shooting used to provide rapid, right-first-time maintenance and installation activities. Remote site staff equipped with HD cameras mounted to AR glasses/headsets provide experts in the central control rooms with a complete view of what is happening in the remote location. Instructions sent from these experts to the AR glasses/headsets show the remote staff exactly what they need to do. As these remote activities are performed, the central staff are able to immediately see the impact on the network and can modify the procedures if necessary, in effect creating a real time control loop for these activities.
The communications platform used by the advanced OT applications can be used to provide the high bandwidth connectivity needed for this AR application, if it is augmented with the ability to flexibility allocate bandwidth to where it is needed in real time ….. after all network incidents and outages cannot be planned to occur in specified locations at a specific time.
A second much overlooked example is the ability to provide entertainment services to the remote staff used to deploy long distance pipelines for oil, gas and water or to the staff involved in extraction of resources at remote locations. Employers have started to realize that there are unique strains related to working in these remote locations and this greatly impacts productivity and increases the risks of mistakes. It has been found that providing staff with entertainment systems that help them relax and participate, as much as possible, in the modern, instantaneous, always connected world helps alleviate some of these stresses. The same communications platform used by the advanced OT applications can be used to provide the real time, high bandwidth, connectivity required to stream television and films, participate in social media and to set-up video calls with their friends and family back home.
However to provide these services efficiently and to secure the rest of the OT network, the communications platform must be augmented with the ability to isolate the “entertainment services” from the OT services and the ability to flexibly use the bandwidth used for these “entertainment services” for emergency applications, like AR troubleshooting, in the case of incidents and emergencies.
With utilities needing to deploy a flexible, high-capacity, real time, next generation communications platform to support advanced OT applications. In the near future you can imagine workers on off-shore oil rigs setting up a virtual reality call with their family and friends and sitting down together to watch England win the FIFA world cup. Well maybe the last bit still a fantasy.