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USC takes part in White House-led initiative to turn ‘smart’ into ‘useful’

SmartAmerica Challenge asks partners to build a stronger energy grid

energy at sunset
A USC team approached research problems in the nation's power grid. (Photo/Light Painting)

A team of researchers with USC’s Terry Benzel presented a project in Washington D.C., aimed at using our increasingly interconnected world to build a stronger, more efficient energy grid.

The June 11 presentation culminated six months of collaboration between five universities and four private partners, all recruited by the White House for its SmartAmerica Challenge.

The White House recruited researchers from government, industry and universities around the country, including USC, to create 24 such teams tasked with finding ways to unite the “smart” objects in our lives — computer-controlled devices ranging from pacemakers to hospital records systems — into a useful “Internet of Things.”

For example, imagine if road sensors could help manage traffic flow in real time or homes could detect when your car pulls into the driveway at the end of the day and turn on the lights automatically.

“Cyber-Physical Systems take advantage of the rapidly growing infrastructure of computer-controlled objects and add value by having them work together,” said Benzel, deputy division director for Internet and Networked Systems at the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Benzel also leads a cybersecurity research and testbed project for Defense Technology Experimental Research (DETER), a partnership between ISI, the University of California, Berkeley, and Sparta Inc.

Smart energy grids

Benzel’s team — Smart Energy Cyber-Physical Systems — approached research problems in the nation’s power grid with the goal of boosting efficiency and resiliency, as well as protecting the crucial resource from potential terrorist attacks. The group includes researchers from USC, Iowa State University, North Carolina State University, the MITRE Corp., National Instruments, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, the Scitor Corp. and the University of North Carolina.

The aim of the research is to demonstrate and experimentally validate models for nationwide smart energy grids that would detect how much energy users actually need.

“In DETER we have an excellent testbed for exploring cybersystems, while Iowa State and North Carolina State have excellent testbeds for power systems. In just a matter of months, we’ve created an integrated facility,” Benzel said.

The integrated testbeds can also be used to evaluate approaches to distributed monitoring and control throughout the system to avoid having a single point that could be knocked out, disrupting power to a large area — a key weakness in the current model.

“Hurricane Sandy, the Northeast blackout — these were wake-up calls that the power grid is vulnerable to disruption,” Benzel said, noting that the grid also needs to be secure from terrorist attacks.

While those attacks may be physical, the increasingly computerized systems also open electrical grids up to cyberattacks as Benzel’s team is working to come up with a framework for defenses against such attacks.

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USC takes part in White House-led initiative to turn ‘smart’ into ‘useful’

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