Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems are essential for industry leaders to develop and implement in order to stay competitive. However, it is about more than just efficiency. A good SCADA system is also safer and prevents human errors.

However, one of the weaknesses of most SCADA systems currently in place is that they lack security: they often do not have the bandwidth or memory to handle it, and run on old computer systems like DOS, VMS, and Unix systems.

The largest SCADA systems control power grids, dams, and other large industrial machinery. Utilities like water and sewer services, oil and gas, power/electric systems, transit (think light rail) systems, telecommunication, and aquaculture systems.

The industry is extremely competitive, and is the cutting edge of IT. Cloud-based applications mean it is accessible to more businesses from large to small than it ever has been before and makes remote management a real possibility.

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Data Acquisition

The first important component of SCADA is the ability to gather data, or data acquisition. The collection of the right data is what enables the system to make proper decisions. This is tied to the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things is loosely defined as any connected device that collects and transmits data that can be used to produce or influence a certain outcome. Industrial devices are fitted with thousands of these devices, from simple sensors that have been added to entire components that provide detailed reports on the functionality of a system.

One of the issues with this data is accuracy, a vital component since either the automation portion of SCADA or a human operator will take action based on the information they receive. This is why there is often a certain amount of redundancy built into systems. One sensor may indicate how far a valve is open, and the other will detect the actual pressure in a gas line, for example.

The two pieces of data together affect decision making about what to do to increase or decrease pressure. If the two pieces of data indicate two different conditions, an alarm can be activated to indicate something is wrong.

Automation

One of the key advantages of SCADA is the automation of everyday processes. These systems are intelligent enough to respond to the data gathered under normal operating situations and respond appropriately.

Many of these systems are now equipped with artificial intelligence and machine learning, and are programmed learn as they go, optimizing their responses and expanding their knowledge. This allows them to anticipate certain conditions rather than simply reacting to them.

This virtually eliminates human error in these cases, and allows the automation of tedious and repetitive tasks once performed by a human, increasing productivity and therefore profitability. 

An additional aspect of SCADA is that is allows for the control of systems that are spread over a large geographic area without having a human present at each key location. This means the manpower needed to cover the area is smaller, and communication and troubleshooting is more reliable. This includes things like large solar and wind farms, both common applications for this technology.

The Security Issues

The simplest forms of SCADA started in the 1960’s, and as computers have become smaller and more common, they have evolved with technology. The rise of the Internet of Things has enhanced this ability, but at the same time has created certain security issues. Due to the importance of SCADA, the importance of developing proper security has become a priority.

The vulnerability lies not in the control computers, because they have become more sophisticated over time, and with the addition of artificial intelligence comes a certain amount of security at that point. The vulnerability is in the fact that often now the sensors, the components of the Internet of Things, are wireless but are nearly impossible to secure.

This means that the manipulation of the data it acquires and sends could cause the system to react in an adverse way. For instance, if a sensor indicates pressure is rising, the system may attempt to lower it even if it is not actually high.

While the sensors themselves are generally reliable, and there are typically redundancies in critical systems, there is a certain risk of malicious manipulation by someone who knows how the systems and software operate together.

This dilemma is not one easily solved. Many of the sensors are inexpensive and don’t even have the memory or bandwidth for a simple password, the lowest form of security. A partial solution is to properly secure the network itself, but that too can be challenging with potentially thousands of devices that are connected and active.

Of course, because of the vital role SCADA plays in a company’s profitability, this is an active and evolving discussion.

In nearly any industry of any size, SCADA is now a vital part of daily operations. Making sure the data gathered is secure and the control systems are up to date is challenging for companies who have been doing this for a long time, but for new organizations just implementing SCADA, they can start with more secure devices in the first place.

However, there is no doubt that the data acquisition and automated control possible with SCADA is an essential thing to master in today’s competitive marketplace. Was the information in this article helpful? Leave us a comment in the section below.