Attacks on Electrical Infrastructure

A February 10, 2014 article in Emergency Management Magazine titled Attack on California Electric Grid Called Terrorism brings about some very interesting speculation on an incident that occurred at an electrical substation near San Jose last year.  Unfortunately the article saves some critical information for the end and left me with a poor initial impression (i.e. assuming that the weapons used were assault rifles).  My early impression of the article, particularly having grown up in the country, was that this was the result of ‘Billy-Bob and Joe decided after a bunch of brewskis they were going to shoot up a substation’, as stated by Mark Johnson, recently retired VP of Pacific Gas and Electric. 

Toward the end of the article, the author identifies information associated to the shooting of the transformers, including the removal of 75 lb manhole covers and the cutting of fiber optic lines.  With this and other information revealed in the article, it seems likely this was more than Billy-Bob and Joe.  It’s suggested by the author that this activity could have been a ‘dress rehearsal’ for terrorists.  While I’m no terrorism expert, I offer that it’s not likely to involve any major entities such as Al-Qaeda, who are, unfortunately, must more clandestine than this – just look at how long it took us to find Bin Laden.  My guess is that this was perpetrated by a local, semi-organized, domestic group.  They did some research, but were clearly sloppy and ultimately unsuccessful, if, in fact, their goal was to cause an outage.  Nonetheless, an act such as this should certainly be categorized as terrorism, despite the origin of the perpetrators and their cause. 

This scenario, however, provides some important food for thought.  I’ve posted previously on the vulnerability of our electrical system to both intentional acts as well as natural disasters.  There are some efforts under way to increase the redundancies of our system and to create micro-grids, which would isolate impacts, which are great mitigation strategies.  The occurrence of this intentional act should bring strong consideration to prevention and protection activities to heighten security and resiliency of this infrastructure.  We need to call on our law makers to work with emergency managers, regulators, and the industry itself to require a multi-faceted approach to include protection, prevention, and mitigation efforts. 

Progress with FAA with UAVs

Tuesday morning I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Greater Utica Chamber of Commerce focused on providing information to areas businesses about the FAA‘s selection of the former Griffiss Air Base/Oneida County Airport as one of six sites in the nation to test integration of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) into commercial airspace.  The presentations were excellent, with efforts centered around the NUAIR Alliance, a conglomerate of public, private, and educational entities working toward testing airspace integration technologies and protocols, as well as various uses and applications of UAVs, including those for agriculture, commercial enterprise, and public safety. 

Interestingly enough, as mentioned by the panelists, UAVs, or drones as they are often referred, have been in regular use in other nations for years.  Japan, for example, has been using UAVs for agricultural applications such as spraying crops, for the last 10 years.  France, too, has been using UAVs for various purposes.  Here in the US, we largely face matters of regulation as the barrier to utilizing UAVs for non-military applications.  The FAA, who would enact these regulations, is largely looking at matters of safety related to the integration of UAVs into commercial airspace.  Researching these matters and making recommendations to the FAA through real life application is the goal of NUAIR.  Amongst the partners of the NUAIR Alliance are private firms who wish to use UAV technology for agricultural and commercial applications.  These companies, smartly, are now in on the ground floor of this technology in the United States.

With most drones being relatively inexpensive, this technology is accessible for both small farmers and large companies.  Amazon, the online retain giant, has already expressed interest in using UAVs to deliver packages.  As for public safety applications (I’ve written before about this), the possibilities are practically endless.  Those who have privacy concerns have little ground for blocking development of these life saving tools.  Current privacy laws, up to and including the US Constitution, already address these concerns and provide the foundation for UAV applications in law enforcement.  The new Fox show, Almost Human, which is set in the future, brilliantly displays heavy use of drones to track suspects and serve other law enforcement purposes which are better served with smaller, more agile UAVs rather than the piloted helicopters we use today.  These are faster to deploy and minimize human risk.  Thus far, the show has not displayed any use of UAVs with the capability to use lethal force.  Law enforcement aside, there are numerous other public safety applications.  A recent article about massive boulders crushing a farm house in Italy displayed images and video, reportedly taken by UAVs.  Consider similar technology leveraged for a missing person search or to gather information on the extent of a wild fire or damages from a tornado. 

The future of UAVs is exciting and I’m thrilled for the test grounds to be practically in my own back yard.  I’m looking forward to the first UAV sighting near my property as the NUAIR partners conduct tests.  Technology certainly is exciting!