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February 05 2013

Go to Washington, build the industrial Internet

The White House has issued its call for the second round of Presidential Innovation Fellows, and it includes an invitation to spend a 6- to 12-month “tour of duty” in Washington, building the industrial Internet — or, more precisely, helping the National Institute of Standards and Technology find ways to connect proprietary intelligent machines to each other securely through standardized communication layers.

NIST is looking for two fellows — one with a background in information technology and the other from physical engineering — reflecting the convergence of those fields in the industrial Internet, where challenges move fluidly back and forth between software and hardware.

Shyam Sunder, director of the engineering laboratory at NIST, proposed the fellowships as a way to coordinate the broad public and private research efforts that are going into the industrial Internet. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology had identified cyber-physical systems as a national priority for federal research and development in 2007 and 2010, and the field was part of the mandate of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership announced in 2011.

At the same time, private-sector work on the industrial Internet has accelerated in domains like automotive technology, manufacturing, utilities and logistics, says Sunder. “They all have, as their core, networking and information technology being integrated within engineered physical systems. They all have a strong emphasis on sensors, controls and processors that are networked and somehow have to be organized.”

Those domains are blurring, with many functions that used to be handled by specialized hardware now handled in more generically-build software. “This convergence is what motivates our work,” says Sunder. “There’s value to looking at these in a coherent fashion.”

NIST has been collaborating with industry and academics for a year now, staging a workshop in March 2012 and an executive round-table in June. Last fall NIST broadened the group of agencies working on industrial Internet development to include, among others, the National Science Foundation.

The call for fellows is broad. “We have cast a wide net for two kinds of people that I think are crucial here,” says Sunder. “One brings the networking and IT perspective in things like interoperability, cybersecurity, and systems integration; and then, of course, the other one brings the physical systems perspective in areas such as controls and sensing.”

And, says Sunder, the environment in which the fellows will work is specialized and will require careful coordination with industry. “Industrial control systems traditionally have been very tightly controlled, tightly-coupled systems. So when you deal with the challenge of the industrial Internet, even though stacks might look similar [to those used in the open Internet], the details of those stacks can be incredibly challenging to define because you have to balance the openness and the security aspects in very interesting and clever ways. Industry is on the front line of these challenges, and by bringing bridges with industry, we can help elucidate what those frameworks might be in all these areas.”

The standards-setting deals with what Sunder calls an “open connection layer,” which sits on top of proprietary intelligence and contains communications between machines—cars exchanging information between each other, for example, or with highway infrastructure. “It’s the non-proprietary interactions that you have to manage for,” he says. “The economic potential and the public safety potential and the public benefit potential of these new technologies will depend on the ability to deal with non-proprietary interaction.”

This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

January 31 2013

Hacking robotic arms, predicting flight arrival times, manufacturing in America, tracking Disney customers (industrial Internet links)

Flight Quest (GE, powered by Kaggle) — Last November GE, Alaska Airlines, and Kaggle announced the Flight Quest competition, which invites data scientists to build models that can accurately predict when a commercial airline flight touches down and reaches its gate. Since the leaderboard for the competition was activated on December 18, 2012, entrants have already beaten the benchmark prediction accuracy by more than 40%, and there are still two weeks before final submissions are due.

Robot Army (NYC Resistor) — A pair of robotic arms, stripped from their previous application with wire cutters, makes its way across the Manhattan Bridge on a bicycle and into the capable hands of NYC Resistor, a hardware-hacker collective in Brooklyn. There, Trammell Hudson installed new microcontrollers and brought them back into working condition.

The Next Wave of Manufacturing (MIT Technology Review) — This month’s TR special feature is on manufacturing, with special mention of the industrial Internet and its application in factories, as well as a worthwhile interview with the head of the Reshoring Initiative.

At Disney Parks, a Bracelet Meant to Build Loyalty (and Sales) (The New York Times) — A little outside the immediate industrial Internet area, but relevant nevertheless to the practice of measuring every component of an enormous system to look for things that can be improved. In this case, those components are Disney theme park visitors, who will soon use RFID wristbands to pay for concessions, open hotel doors, and get into short lines for amusement rides. Disney will use the resulting data to model consumer behavior in its parks.

This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

January 24 2013

The bicycle barometer, SCADA security, the smart city in a disaster (industrial Internet links)

The Bicycle Barometer (@richardjpope) — Richard Pope, a project manager at, built what he calls a barometer for his bike commute: it uses weather and transit data to compute a single value that expresses the relative comfort of a bike commute versus a train commute, and displays it on a dial. It’s a clever way of combining two unrelated datasets and then applying algorithmic intelligence. As more data from a sensor-laden world becomes available, we’ll need better tools like this one for reducing it to useful, simple, informed prescriptions.

Scada Security Predictions: 2013 (IndustryWeek) — Tofino Security founder Eric Byres predicts that 2013 will be the year that tablets start to show up on the plant floor. “We won’t see a full invasion of iDevices on the plant floor in 2013,” he writes, “but the wall will be breached.” Security researchers I’ve spoken with usually say that iOS is a remarkably secure platform, but connecting more devices to industrial control systems means more endpoints that make the job of securing an industrial system much more complicated.

Adaptation (The New Yorker, subscription required for full article) — Some smart-city systems, especially targeted communications and infrastructure monitoring, have become important elements of disaster preparedness.

This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

October 11 2012

Investigating the industrial Internet

Consumer networks have revolutionized the way companies understand and reach their customers, making possible intricate measurement and accurate prediction at every step of every transaction. The same revolution is underway in our infrastructure, where new generations of sensor-laden power plants, cars and medical devices will generate vast quantities of data that could bring about improvements in quality, reliability and cost. Big machines will enter the modern era of big data, where they’ll be subject to constant analysis and optimization.

We’ve teamed up with General Electric to explore the industrial Internet and convene a series of conversations that we hope will accelerate its development. GE’s strong presence in many industries has given it a great deal of insight into the ways that industrial data might be gathered, distributed and linked together.

Linking together big smart devices into a true industrial Internet presents enormous challenges: standards need to be developed with the full engagement of the technology industry. Software innovators will need to develop tools that can handle vast quantities of sensor data under tight security constraints, sharing information that can improve the performance of systems that have many operators — without leaking anything important to malicious groups.

Launching the industrial Internet will require big investment on the part of those who will operate each of its nodes, so in addition to looking at the concept’s technical aspects we’ll also explore its promise as a business revolution in ways that are both practical and already in use (like remote operation of mining equipment) and promising but largely conceptual (like mobile health and big data in diagnostics).

GE won’t be the only voice in this conversation: other companies have developed their own visions for the industrial Internet and we’ll be exploring those as well, looking for commonalities and engaging as many voices as we can from our neutral place in the technology industry.

The promise of the industrial Internet is that it will bring intelligence to industries that are hugely capital-intensive and create broad value that all of the industrial Internet’s participants will share. We’ll look for stories that illustrate that future.

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