The utility industry is competitive and must comply with many stringent regulatory requirements to prevent situations that would cause a facility to be down for even a small amount of time. A slight equipment failure results in immediate consequences from both a financial and safety perspective. These pressures move utilities towards building high-availability smart sites that help minimize unscheduled down time and allow shorter time to repair.
This trend often requires remote access to site equipment. To help facilitate access, utilities are converting their networks to become IP-enabled – but with the many benefits that come with this, the move to IP networks also adds complexity as it becomes increasingly important to securely connect these critical industrial infrastructures.
Monitoring and controlling the data within these sites is critical. But accessing information such as equipment health and operational data can be time-consuming and costly.
To proactively monitor and control remotely located assets, users must be able to access local sensor data. The most cost-effective and intelligent way to do this is through cellular automation.
Cellular automation is the concept of providing Remote Terminal Units (RTU) with cellular connectivity to access data in hard-to-reach locations. Cellular connectivity is a fast and easy method of accessing, monitoring, and controlling business-critical applications at remote sites. It requires, though, a level of responsibility that mandates enhanced security.
The challenge facing many customers is that, on top of their existing RTUs, they must also figure out which of many products they will require. It may be necessary to have a device for cellular connectivity, a Modbus gateway and a Security (VPN) device, which can be costly to deploy and complicated to administer and maintain. A cellular automation system simplifies this task by integrating automation, routing, security and cellular technologies into one package. A built-in Modbus gateway interfaces with existing RTUs and PLCs and provides real-time access to data from pumps, valves, reclosers, transformers, capacitor banks and meters.
For industrial applications such as oil and gas, power and energy, and water and wastewater renewables, accessing data in real time and keeping network links up and running is critical. More stringent security requirements, such as EPA and NERC, must also be supported. Additionally, an integrated firewall that provides stateful packet inspections, as well as filtering of IPs by access control lists or NAT, is needed to avoid new threats. More specifically, it is necessary to have integrated user firewall configuration rules that restrict the type and duration of access to authorized individual, user-based permissions and encryption of data for adequate security for business-critical applications.
Short Messaging Service (SMS) based solutions are another low-cost alternative. While this approach may be effective and easy to use, it has inherent risks. Texts are a powerful means of attack because the devices that receive them generally cannot refuse them or the commands encoded in them. The problem is that users are unable to block unwanted texts, which means that they are unable to prevent someone from sending commands through text messaging and throwing off the device.
Other approaches are modem-only equipment where a cellular modem is added to existing equipment. While this approach does provide the ease of cellular connectivity, the lack of security options on most cellular modems leaves the network open to attacks.
A good cellular automation solution based on TCP/IP networking provides anywhere/anytime connectivity and offers security features that meet the most stringent requirements of industrial standards associations.
Today, most remote sites contain legacy serial devices that need to be converted to IP-based services. Some of these devices require special treatment by the gateway they are attached to so that the serial interface can be properly converted to IP. A cellular automation system enables smart remote-connected sites by protecting RTUs, PLCs and other HMI equipment, while also making mission-critical data from variable frequency drives, pumps, valves and motors securely available in near real time.
To efficiently address the challenges of remote monitoring and control of industrial networks, an integrated and cost-effective approach that supports both environments within a single platform is required. The goal is to allow users to locally do everything that they can do remotely.
Filed Under: Factory automation, Design World articles