Go to Washington, build the industrial Internet

The next class of Presidential Innovation Fellows will include two people who will help define standards for the industrial Internet.

The White House has issued its call for the second round of Presidential Innovation Fellows, and it includes an invitation to spend a 6- to 12-month “tour of duty” in Washington, building the industrial Internet — or, more precisely, helping the National Institute of Standards and Technology find ways to connect proprietary intelligent machines to each other securely through standardized communication layers.

NIST is looking for two fellows — one with a background in information technology and the other from physical engineering — reflecting the convergence of those fields in the industrial Internet, where challenges move fluidly back and forth between software and hardware.

Shyam Sunder, director of the engineering laboratory at NIST, proposed the fellowships as a way to coordinate the broad public and private research efforts that are going into the industrial Internet. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology had identified cyber-physical systems as a national priority for federal research and development in 2007 and 2010, and the field was part of the mandate of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership announced in 2011.

At the same time, private-sector work on the industrial Internet has accelerated in domains like automotive technology, manufacturing, utilities and logistics, says Sunder. “They all have, as their core, networking and information technology being integrated within engineered physical systems. They all have a strong emphasis on sensors, controls and processors that are networked and somehow have to be organized.”

Those domains are blurring, with many functions that used to be handled by specialized hardware now handled in more generically-build software. “This convergence is what motivates our work,” says Sunder. “There’s value to looking at these in a coherent fashion.”

NIST has been collaborating with industry and academics for a year now, staging a workshop in March 2012 and an executive round-table in June. Last fall NIST broadened the group of agencies working on industrial Internet development to include, among others, the National Science Foundation.

The call for fellows is broad. “We have cast a wide net for two kinds of people that I think are crucial here,” says Sunder. “One brings the networking and IT perspective in things like interoperability, cybersecurity, and systems integration; and then, of course, the other one brings the physical systems perspective in areas such as controls and sensing.”

And, says Sunder, the environment in which the fellows will work is specialized and will require careful coordination with industry. “Industrial control systems traditionally have been very tightly controlled, tightly-coupled systems. So when you deal with the challenge of the industrial Internet, even though stacks might look similar [to those used in the open Internet], the details of those stacks can be incredibly challenging to define because you have to balance the openness and the security aspects in very interesting and clever ways. Industry is on the front line of these challenges, and by bringing bridges with industry, we can help elucidate what those frameworks might be in all these areas.”

The standards-setting deals with what Sunder calls an “open connection layer,” which sits on top of proprietary intelligence and contains communications between machines—cars exchanging information between each other, for example, or with highway infrastructure. “It’s the non-proprietary interactions that you have to manage for,” he says. “The economic potential and the public safety potential and the public benefit potential of these new technologies will depend on the ability to deal with non-proprietary interaction.”

This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

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