Hacking Into…. A Wind Farm?

Pick a lock, plug in a WiFi-enabled Raspberry Pi and that’s nearly all there is to it.

There’s more than that of course, but the wind farms that [Jason Staggs] and his fellow researchers at the University of Tulsa had permission to access were — alarmingly — devoid of security measures beyond a padlock or tumbler lock on the turbines’ server closet. Being that wind farms are generally  in open fields away from watchful eyes, there is little indeed to deter a would-be attacker.

[Staggs] notes that a savvy intruder has the potential to shut down or cause considerable — and expensive — damage to entire farms without alerting their operators, usually needing access to only one turbine to do so. Once they’d entered the turbine’s innards, the team made good on their penetration test by plugging their Pi into the turbine’s programmable automation controller and circumventing the modest network security.

The team are presenting their findings from the five farms they accessed at the Black Hat security conference — manufacturers, company names, locations and etc. withheld for obvious reasons. One hopes that security measures are stepped up in the near future if wind power is to become an integral part of the power grid.

All this talk of hacking and wind reminds us of our favourite wind-powered wanderer: the Strandbeest!

[via WIRED]

How Smart is the Grid?

Marketing and advertising groups often have a tendency to capitalize on technological trends faster than engineers and users can settle into the technology itself. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it is difficult to hold back the motivation to get a product to market and profit. Right now the most glaring example is the practice of carelessly putting WiFi in appliances and toys and putting them on the Internet of Things, but there is a similar type of fiasco playing out in the electric power industry as well. Known as the “smart grid”, an effort is underway to modernize the electric power grid in much the same way that the Internet of Things seeks to modernize household appliances, but to much greater and immediate benefit.

A Cutler-Hammer industrial breaker ominously predicts the coming confusion in the smart grid arena.
Photo by Bryan Cockfield

To that end, if there’s anything in need of modernization it’s the electric grid. Often still extensively using technology that was pioneered in the 1800s like synchronous generators and transformers (not to mention metering and billing techniques that were perfected before the invention of the transistor), there is a lot of opportunity to add oversight and connectivity to almost every part of the grid from the power plant to the customer. Additionally, most modern grids are aging rapidly at the same time that we are asking them to carry more and more electricity. Modernization can also help the aging infrastructure become more efficient at delivering energy.

While the term “smart grid” is as nebulous and as ill-defined as “Internet of Things” (even the US Government’s definition is muddied and vague), the smart grid actually has a unifying purpose behind it and, so far, has been an extremely useful way to bring needed improvements to the power grid despite the lack of a cohesive definition. While there’s no single thing that suddenly transforms a grid into a smart grid, there are a lot of things going on at once that each improve the grid’s performance and status reporting ability.

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When the Grid Goes Dark

If you lived through the Y2K fiasco, you might remember a lot of hype with almost zero real-world ramifications in the end. As the calendar year flipped from 1999 to 2000 many forecast disastrous software bugs in machines controlling our banking and infrastructure. While this potential disaster didn’t quite live up to its expectations there was another major infrastructure problem, resulting in many blackouts in North America, that reared its head shortly after the new millennium began. While it may have seemed like Y2K was finally coming to fruition based on the amount of chaos that was caused, the actual cause of these blackouts was simply institutional problems with the power grid itself.

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How Energy Gets Where Its Needed

Even if you’re reading this on a piece of paper that was hand-delivered to you in the Siberian wilderness, somewhere someone had to use energy to run a printer and also had to somehow get all of this information from the energy-consuming information superhighway. While we rely on the electric grid for a lot of our daily energy needs like these, it’s often unclear exactly how the energy from nuclear fuel rods, fossil fuels, or wind and solar gets turned into electrons that somehow get into the things that need those electrons. We covered a little bit about the history of the electric grid and how it came to be in the first of this series of posts, but how exactly does energy get delivered to us over the grid? Continue reading “How Energy Gets Where Its Needed”

Make Any PC A Thousand Dollar Gaming Rig With Cloud Gaming

The best gaming platform is a cloud server with a $4,000 dollar graphics card you can rent when you need it.

[Larry] has  done this sort of thing before with Amazon’s EC2, but recently Microsoft has been offering a beta access to some of NVIDIA’s Tesla M60 graphics cards. As long as you have a fairly beefy connection that can support 30 Mbps of streaming data, you can play just about any imaginable game at 60fps on the ultimate settings.

It takes a bit of configuration magic and quite a few different utilities to get it all going, but in the end [Larry] is able to play Overwatch on max settings at a nice 60fps for $1.56 an hour. Considering that just buying the graphics card alone will set you back 2500 hours of play time, for the casual gamer, this is a great deal.

It’s interesting to see computers start to become a rentable resource. People have been attempting streaming computers for a while now, but this one is seriously impressive. With such a powerful graphics card you could use this for anything intensive, need a super high-powered video editing station for a day or two? A CAD station to make anyone jealous? Just pay a few dollars of cloud time and get to it!

LED Etch-a-Sketch built without a microcontroller

logic-etch-a-sketch

This project is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished with a rather complicated logic circuit. It’s an Etch-a-Sketch made from a 16×16 LED grid. That in itself is only somewhat interesting. But when hearing about the features and that it is driven by logic chips we were unable to dream up how it was designed. There’s no schematic but the video commentary explains all.

The thing that confused us the most is that the cursor is shining brighter than the rest of the pixels. This is done with two different 555 times and a duty cycle trick. When you turn the trimpots the cursor position is tracked by some decade counters. Pixels in your path are written to a RAM chip which acts as the frame buffer. And there’s even a level conversion hack that let’s the display run at 15v to achieve the desired brightness. Top notch!
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MIT Students take Tetris to a grand scale

Careful, this hack might foster doubts about the level of fun you’re having at you own Computer Science department. Last weekend a group of students at MIT pulled off a hack of great scale by turning a building into a Tetris game board.

The structure in question is the Green Building on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Campus. It houses the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Departments, but was chose based on the size and regularity of the grid formed by the windows on one side. The group hasn’t provided much in the way of details yet, but the video after the break shows the game play and start-up screen. The middle portion of the building is used as a scrolling marquee to display the word “Tetris” before the game pieces start falling. We’re only guessing (and we hope you will add your conjecture in the comments section) but we’d bet they assembled a set of wireless RGB LED lamps and set one on the sill of each window. There does seem to be a number of ‘dead’ pixels, but it doesn’t diminish the fun of the overall effect.

If you don’t have your own building to play on, you should go small-scale and implement Tetris on a character display.

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