Do Control Systems Need Electromagnetic Pulse Resistance?

A growing cyber defense concern centers on how an electromagnetic pulse could disable electronic devices over a large area. One industry supplier is already delivering this level of protection for control systems.

Dirt, dust, high temperatures, moisture, oil mist, vibration, metal shavings. Resistance to these types of industrial environmental factors once represented most, if not all, of the forces an industrial control system might need to be hardened against. But just as new cybersecurity threat vectors and cloud computing have expanded the realm of threats facing control systems, so too are environmental factors.

The new environmental factor shaping the future of control system development is electromagnetic pulses (EMPs).

What’s an EMP? Essentially it is a burst of electromagnetic energy that can damage and/or disable electronic equipment. Causes of EMPs range from natural sources like lightning strikes, meteoroid impacts and coronal mass ejections from the sun to man-made, such as switching electrical circuitry, powerline surges and, of course, the type that gets the most press—nuclear explosions.

The general press has covered the threat of EMPs to a great degree, as can be seen in the Forbes article on how an EMP strike could make 9/11 look trivial, to Vice’s military expert assessment and CNN’s coverage of Boeing’s development of an EMP weapon.

As for how all this applies to control systems, Bedrock Automation has announced that its industrial control system (ICS) is the first ICS to meet the Military Standard 461 (MIL-STD-461F) and International Electrical Commission 61000 (IEC 61000) standard for EMP resistance. Industrial equipment standards, such as IEC 60068, define compliance for systems to low-energy EMP, such as electrostatic discharge and electrical fast transients. But that level of system hardening will not defend against high-energy EMP.

According to Bedrock Automation, Dayton Brown, an independent military and industrial testing firm, conducted test RS105 on a Bedrock backplane loaded with Bedrock’s secure I/O, power and controller modules along with copper and fiber optic Gigabit Ethernet communications. The test involved repeated 50,000 V/m nanosecond EMP strikes to emulate the energy of a high altitude EMP, as would be created by an atmospheric nuclear detonation. The Bedrock system reportedly performed without error and without consequential damage during and after the test—even after seven complete consecutive test runs.

While having an EMP-resistant ICS sounds good, I had to ask what good it will be for a business to have its ICS up and running if all the systems it relies on for power are knocked out by the EMP. Here’s how Albert Rooyakkers, founder, CTO and vice president of engineering at Bedrock Automation, responded: “The immediate issue for an owner/operator is to assure a safer and more orderly shutdown of a process in the event of an accidental or intentional EMP strike, and this is what an EMP-hardened control and safety system can provide. Plus, since ICSs are typically installed with an expected service life of 20 to 40 years, the automation technology event horizon should anticipate as much as possible as far into the future as possible. Solving EMP now puts an owner/operator ahead of a likely curve of cyber defense issues.”

Rooyakkers added that, to stay on top of potential threats to a control system’s operation, “a solution has to start somewhere. Bedrock’s first tests are of our current ICS offering—controller, backplane, local power and I/O to the terminal block. As for the effect of an EMP on a control system’s power supply, that’s a good question and one we’re addressing. Later this year we will test again with a full Bedrock system including our lithium UPS so that the system and its backup power are tested to prove EMP resistance.”

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