Modernizing Puerto Rico’s Grid

After two massive hurricanes impacted Puerto Rico three months ago, the island was left with extensive damage to its electrical infrastructure. Part of the problem was that the infrastructure was woefully inadequate to withstand a hurricane impact at all. It is possible to harden buildings and infrastructure against extreme weather, and a new plan to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid will address many of these changes that, frankly, should have been made long ago.

Among the upgrades to the power distribution system are improvements to SCADA systems. SCADA allows for remote monitoring and control of substations, switchgear, and other equipment which minimizes the need for crews to investigate problems and improves reliability. SCADA can also be used for automation on a large scale, in addition to the installation of other autonomous equipment meant to isolate faults and restore power quickly. The grid will get physical upgrades as well, including equipment like poles, wire, and substations that are designed and installed to a more rigorous standard in order to make them more wind- and flood-tolerant. Additional infrastructure will be placed underground as well, and a more aggressive tree trimming program will be put in place.

The plan also calls for some 21st-century improvements as well, including the implementation of “micro grids”. These micro grids reduce the power system’s reliance on centralized power plants by placing small generation facilities (generators, rooftop solar, etc) in critical areas, like at hospitals. Micro grids can also be used in remote areas to improve reliability where it is often impractical or uneconomical to service.

While hurricanes are inevitable in certain parts of the world, the damage that they cause is often exacerbated by poor design and bad planning. Especially in the mysterious world of power generation and distribution, a robust infrastructure is extremely important for the health, safety, and well-being of the people who rely on it. Hopefully these steps will improve Puerto Rico’s situation, especially since this won’t be the last time a major storm impacts the island.

Project Loon Will Float LTE to Puerto Rico

Some of the biggest names in technology have offered their help in rebuilding Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. The newest name on the list? The X division of Alphabet, who want to help fill the huge communications gap using Project Loon, their high-altitude balloon network. It looks like X is going to get their wish, as they have just been granted license from the FCC to deploy LTE cell coverage to both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

The plan is to launch 30 balloons that will act as a network of floating cell towers to radiate an LTE signal originating from the ground. This coverage would be a great boon to a devastated communications infrastructure, but it won’t be a cakewalk to implement. Some handsets of both major persuasions will require a temporary over-the-air update before they can use Project Loon’s network. For phones that can’t operate on Band 8, it won’t work at all. Even so, it’s a great start.

Now you would think that an emergency communications restoration plan like this would be met by all parties with open arms and a circle of pats on the back, but this solution requires a lot of cooperation. One of the major hurdles was to secure spectrum rights from some if not all of the incumbent wireless carriers. Miraculously, eight of them have agreed to hand over their bandwidth. Another issue is that the FCC license is only good for six months, although they would probably entertain an extension given the circumstances. Finally, the dual ownership of the Virgin Islands makes the situation even more complicated, as X must agree not to infringe upon the wireless coverage footprint of the British Virgin Islands.

Via r/Futurology

The Hackers and the Hurricane

When natural disasters strike, particularly if they are in some of the less remote parts of the world, we see them unfolding in real-time on our television screens. They become a 24-hour rolling news exercise in disaster titillation, each fresh horror ghoulishly picked over by breathless reporters live-telecasting from windswept streets, and endlessly rehashed by a succession of in-studio expert guests.

Then once the required image of a dusty child being pulled from the rubble or a tearful mother describing her daughter being swept away is in the can, a politician somewhere is found in bed with a model or a tinpot dictator rattles his sabre, and the world moves on. The BAFTA or the Emmy is a certainty for this one, did you see the anguish!

Meanwhile on the ground, the situation remains the same. There is no power, no sanitation, no communications, no food, and help seems very far away. In the wake of the recent hurricane season across the Caribbean, there are millions of people whose worlds have been wrecked, and several international governments have faced significant criticism for their lethargic response.

In our world of hardware hackers and makers, we are on the whole practical people. We exist to make, and do, rather than to endlessly talk. Seeing the plight of the victims of Irma, Jose, or Maria leaves us wanting to do practical things to help, because that’s what we do. But of course, we can do nothing, because we’re thousands of miles away and probably lack whatever skills or training are in demand on the islands.

It’s heartening then to hear of just a few moments when our wider community has managed to be in the right place at the right time to offer some help. We’ve had a couple in our tips line lately we’d like to share.

[Csp3r] writes about the Derbycon conference held in Louisville, at which [Carlos Perez] and [Jose Quinones Borreros], information security specialists from Puerto Rico, were in attendance. They mentioned a need for emergency radios, and the community at the conference came together to raise money for much more than just a few radios. $15,000 was raised in all, spent on radios, solar chargers, generators, flashlights, USB battery packs, and tools. This amounted to a significant bulk, so Hackers For Charity helped secure some space on an aid flight to the island.

Then [Bruce Perens, K6BP] writes about a request from the American Red Cross to the ARRL for 50 radio amateurs to help with their relief efforts in Puerto Rico. They will perform the role you might expect of enabling essential communications, as well as to quote the ARRL: “help record, enter, and submit disaster-survivor information into the ARC Safe and Well system”. This is a request unprecedented in its scale, and reflects the level of damage across the island.

For most of us, the best we can do when helping out with these events will be to drop coins into an OXFAM or Red Cross collecting tin and leave it to the experts. But as we’ve noted above, for just a few of us the opportunity to do something a bit more useful presents itself. If you find yourself in that position, make it count!

We’ve looked at the role of amateur radio in public service before, and we’ve even featured it in one or two projects. This emergency box for example has all you’d need to provide this type of service.

Cyclone Catarina image from the ISS, [Public domain].