Smart and secure

Smart Grid

(Illustration by Brandan Deason)

In a new twist on cyber-security, S&T computer scientists work to protect the future power grid.

Researchers working on a future power grid for the United States envision a network similar to the Internet. On this future smart grid, users and utility companies interact to share and swap energy from distributed systems, much like computer users tap into the web to transfer files.

But just as malicious Internet users can spread harmful viruses through computer networks, this future power network could be vulnerable to outages and other disruptions caused by terrorists or other attackers.

A small group of computer science researchers at Missouri S&T is trying to prevent such a scenario.

The S&T computer science department is one of only a few in the nation working on cyber-security issues for the smart grid. And the university, as a member of the National Science Foundation’s FREEDM Systems Center, is among the nation’s leaders in the field. Ultimately, the computer scientists’ research could result in technology that stands between a major disruption and a secure source of electricity for businesses and homeowners.

It’s a new twist on cyber-security, says Tom Roth, CSci’11, a Ph.D. student working on the project.

“We’re usually concerned about who can access our data,” Roth says. “But on the smart grid, we’re not actually dealing with mainstream cyber-security. We’re looking at what an attacker could do to the physical side of the system to compromise security. For instance, a malicious resident on a smart grid could affect the stability of the power network in such a way that it could cause a blackout.

“We’re asking, ‘Can an attacker figure out, from the information being released on the grid, what part of the network might be most stressed and most vulnerable to attack?’” Roth says.

Missouri S&T is one of seven universities involved in the NSF’s FREEDM Systems Center, a nationwide effort established in 2008 to begin building the smart grid. The FREEDM (Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management) Systems Center is based at North Carolina State University.

The project’s significant computer science component has to do with something called distributed grid intelligence, or DGI. The effort is led from Missouri S&T by Bruce McMillin, professor of computer science. DGI is a crucial component for making the smart grid work. It is essentially the “brains” of the operation — the command and control center.

Working with McMillin are five graduate and Ph.D. students, one undergraduate student and one post-doctoral researcher, all from Missouri S&T. Faculty and their graduate students at institutions in Florida and Auckland, New Zealand, are also involved with this project.

Roth is funded through the FREEDM System Center Graduate Fellowship and fellow researcher Michael Catanzaro, a senior in computer science, is funded through the FREEDM Undergraduate Research Scholars Program.

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