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April 2019
Interview

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Innovations in Comfort, Efficiency, and Safety Solutions.
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Tony MarshallsayEMAIL INTERVIEWTony Marshallsay and Ken Sinclair

After working on development of a PRT system and automated warehousing in Germany, Tony Marshallsay (CEng, MIMechE) spent many years in the Middle East, designing and supervising construction of building services, specialising in HVAC, BAS and related digital systems for hospitals, hotels and high-rise, mixed use developments. Now retired, he is interested in developments in BIM, IoT and space technology. He is also a STEM Ambassador.

amarsh_sa@yahoo.com



Internet over Power (IoP)

IoP will be great for the home, and for many non-critical commercial and institutional applications. But for any application handling sensitive data - whether industrial, commercial (BIM), financial (Stock trading) or political/diplomatic - forget it, because the potential for negative RoI is huge: you would be investing a load of hard cash for the system hardware and software licenses, only to facilitate industrial, financial or political espionage which could cause way bigger losses.

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Sinclair:  Tony, your tweets show you're not in favor of this system for sending data over power lines, when we both know people have been doing it for more than 30 years. Would you like to explain why?

Marshallsay:  You're right, Ken, about the time; but the ICT world has moved on considerably over that period. Back then, we were talking about using the earliest PCs to send signals over a home power network to switch individual "smart" outlets ON and OFF; and "high end" meant being able to dim a lamp, which was easy then, because the bulb was incandescent, and nobody cared much about phase-cut power control causing RF interference. Today, it's a whole different ball game.

Quickly drawing a veil over the CFL affair, we now have LED lighting. That doesn't just permit dimming but also color and hue change - in sync with what's playing on your stereo or TV, if you want - and communication with any smart device that has an optical sensor. So, for example, with IoP the selfie cam of the smartphone lying on the bathroom shelf could stream music from an IoP-enabled light fitting; but for upload the fitting would also have to be Bluetooth-capable, and the phone would need it to be switched on.

Sinclair:  But would you need that with a Wi-Fi network in your home?

Marshallsay:  Perhaps not. It all depends on how good your Wi-Fi coverage is.

Modern construction, which includes a lot of metal - steel rebar or mesh in concrete and GI framework for dry walls - can often throw up dead areas, which you can cure by buying extra signal boosters that plug into wall power outlets. With IoP, you would need to buy a number of devices looking like one of those plug-in adaptor blocks with duplex power outlets and a couple of 5V DC charging connections:

Internet anywhere you can plug into a power outlet is a good reason for regular folk to be interested in IoP.

Sinclair:  You say: "regular folk." That gives the impression that you think it's not going to be useful outside the home?

Marshallsay:  I said as much in a tweet, mainly for security reasons. Technically, I'm satisfied that there isn't a problem; and that's why I think it will take off - but only in areas where data security isn't a critical or even significant factor.

Sinclair:  Such as?

Marshallsay:  Well, the obvious one is large retail stores, which have open-plan floors with many different types of goods displayed all over. There's generally overhead department signage; but the individual goods only have signage - description and price placards - at their actual location.

There has been a lot of talk about using Bluetooth beacons for "indoor GPS" to locate people's smartphones and guide them to what they've searched for. They would likely need more power than could comfortably be supplied by a Power over Ethernet (PoE) data connection, meaning they would need to be plugged into a power line and have a separate wired or wireless (Zigbee or EnOcean) connection. If IoP-enabled, they would only need the power socket.

Once a beacon had paired with a customer's smartphone, it could send travel directions to the store's app on the phone to guide the customer to the searched-for goods by the easiest route. The app would then use the phone's regular camera to recognize what was being looked at and show the usual placard information in a pop-up dialog or as an overlay.

But the biggest advantage for stores could be downsizing of the present "cash and pack" areas, which often have long queues at busy times, by using "card only" tills all over the floor, plugged into regular floor or pillar power outlets and accompanied by small caches of branded tote bags, saving customers the present long walk and wait at the central facility.

Sinclair:  That sounds good - but you don't think IoP is going to be useful for offices?

Marshallsay:  No, I don't. I've discussed my concerns about electrical interference - the sort you get from poor, burned, or sticky make/break contacts - and the ease with which hackers could gain access with the people at enModus. They say that they have all sorts of proprietary hardware circuitry to deal with the interference, and will rely on very strong encryption to overcome the hacking access problem. They also say they have had test installations operating in the field for some considerable time.

While I am prepared to accept that, in a well-run commercial or government office with good O&M of the business equipment, the electrical interference might not be too much of a problem; once the make/break contacts in something simple, like a kettle or coffee pod machine, start to wear, the potential for multiple spikes or trips increases. And there will always be surges, however small, when things like phone chargers are switched on and off, or plugged in and out.

As for encryption, it doesn't matter how strong you make it; if somebody really wants to break it, they will. And it doesn't have to be done in real time. All that has to happen is for someone to tap into the traffic, record a load, then take it away and decrypt it offline, at leisure. That happened a while ago with some Eastern European diplomatic comms. Being able to plug your data recorder in anywhere just makes the job a whole lot easier - "a walk in the park."

PlantPROCORE Sinclair:  So, what do you propose instead?

Marshallsay:  I'm fond of the racing phrase: "Horses for courses"; and I don't think IoP is the right horse for the sensitive data course.

It can overcome interference by IP retransmission; but if there's a lot, it becomes very inefficient. And because it makes hacking access too easy, it's imperative to go for an existing, much more secure system using Ethernet coax, CAT 6 or fiber optic cable. Any of these severely reduces the number of potential access points, which are either clearly visible, so nefarious connections should be easily noticed, or tucked away above ceilings, inside walls, or within comms cabinets or plant rooms with restricted access. And while it's difficult to jumper electrical data cables in order to cut in and make a tap, it's not impossible to do it reasonably quickly. Doing the same with fiber optic cable would be nigh impossible.

Sinclair:  Okay. That's pretty clear. For the benefit of our readers, what would you say is the bottom line?

Marshallsay:  IoP will be great for the home, and for many non-critical commercial and institutional applications. But for any application handling sensitive data - whether industrial, commercial (BIM), financial (Stock trading) or political/diplomatic - forget it, because the potential for negative RoI is huge: you would be investing a load of hard cash for the system hardware and software licenses, only to facilitate industrial, financial or political espionage which could cause way bigger losses.



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