back to article Nuclear power station sensors are literally shouting their readings at each other

Audio-based networking may seem an unusual choice for the Internet of Things, especially when used for machines to bellow information at each other inside a nuclear power station. The Register spoke to Chirp at yesterday's IoT Tech Expo conference in London, where the firm's Daniel Jones, chief science officer, explained how …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

    This is the definition of an elegant solution. Using Titanic-era communications to monitor nuclear power stations is just magnificent. Well done to that company and the engineers it employs.

    1. Lee D Silver badge

      Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

      Right up until the point that the radiation sirens all go off and drown out any data readings trying to be transmitted at the most critical point.

      Seriously, this is using ZX Spectrum / Commodore 64 tape-loading routines on modern devices. Anyone who remembers those days will question the reliability, data transfer speed and interference of such things.

      Doing it "out in the open" is like trying to load your Speccy game from a radio station or broadcast over a speaker system with lots of other Speccy's all trying to save/load nearby all broadcasting in plain audio too.

      Yeah, it might work. But it's not new, innovative, sensible or in any way better than basic wireless communication over even an unregulated channel. And anything in an audio range is going to be blasted out by any loud sound. Like a blast.

      1. 8Ace

        Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

        I think we're looking at DSP's etc. here, not a stringy piece of cable, attached to an old tape player with a dirty head, playing the lowest quality cassette media. However I agree that the audio spectrum tends to be full of audible, and inaudible crap, interesting how they will deal with that

        1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

          Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

          However I agree that the audio spectrum tends to be full of audible, and inaudible crap, interesting how they will deal with that

          The same way stuff manages to deal with the RF spectrum, I suspect. Frequency discrimination, fourier analysis, error correction, multicast.

          The computing technology already exists.

      2. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

        Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

        Doing it "out in the open" is like trying to load your Speccy game from a radio station or broadcast over a speaker system with lots of other Speccy's all trying to save/load nearby all broadcasting in plain audio too.

        Brings back fond memories of trying to record computer programs broadcast as audio by the BBC in their shows during the home PC boom of the 80s. Just when you thought you got it, the dog would start barking or the washing machine would go into a spin cycle and drown out the sound.

        Frustrating though it was, it was a simpler time and a happier time.

      3. ForthIsNotDead

        Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

        I'm inclined to agree. It *might* be useful to tell you when the loos in the gents need more loo roll, but if anyone is using these on mission critical and/or safety loops then they are nuts.

        1. SImon Hobson Silver badge

          Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

          ... but if anyone is using these on mission critical and/or safety loops then they are nuts

          If you read the article, they talk about machine monitoring in the turbine hall - nothing nuclear or safety related there, just a bunch of steam turbine generator sets. Most likely, it's also only "condition monitoring" - ie monitoring noise and vibration so as to be able to alert to signs of impending (for example) bearing trouble before it actually fails and causes a breakdown (and potentially more trouble in the process).

          So in fact, you could drop the "nuclear" bit of click bait headline - but then it wouldn't be so "interesting".

          As an aside, anti-nukular people like to slag off how bad things are because some of our old power stations have spent some time shut down over recent years due to cracks in pipework. What they fail to mention is that these are just steam pipes, just like you'd find in a coal or closed cycle gas fired power station - so again, nothing to do with nuclear other than the steam generator in the next building along is nuclear powered rather than coal or gas.

          1. TRT Silver badge

            Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

            "I'm fine."

            "I'm fine."

            "I'm fine."

            "I... No... No! You goddam fools! Idiots! You scrammed the reactor you... you... ! I warned you! I told you!"

      4. James 51 Silver badge

        Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

        Unless you're operating in an environment were RF signals are banned. I am guess that infra and ultrasonic devices would work as well albeit with their own limitations.

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Facepalm

          "Unless you're operating in an environment were RF signals are banned."

          RTFA.

          Radio is banned in French nuclear plants.

      5. wolfetone Silver badge

        Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

        "Seriously, this is using ZX Spectrum / Commodore 64 tape-loading routines on modern devices. Anyone who remembers those days will question the reliability, data transfer speed and interference of such things."

        A Day In The Life Of A Nuclear Reactor To Control - In 1 Second Intervals

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "I'm fine."

        "SHIT!!!!"

        1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

          Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

          A Day In The Life Of A Nuclear Reactor To Control - In 1 Second Intervals

          That's the Speccy/C64 implementation.

          The old Windows implementation is...

          "I'm fine."

          "I'm fine."

          "I'm not fine."

          "Your reactor appears to be entering a state of meltdown - would you like help with that?"

          "Seriously, this is pretty bad - you really ought to get some help"

          The Windows 10 implementation is...

          "I'm fine."

          "I'm fine."

          "I'm fine."

          "I'm fine."

          "Installing update - cross your fingers and hope everything stays fine while I install and reboot"

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

            And a Mac's reaction would be...

            "I'm fine."

            "I'm fine."

            "I'm fine."

            "I'm fine."

            "I'm f... Dude"

            1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge
              Mushroom

              Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

              @AC

              Bomb icon surely (Poor OS9 user here)

        2. Fatman Silver badge
          Joke

          Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

          <quote>

          A Day In The Life Of A Nuclear Reactor To Control - In 1 Second Intervals

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Reactor: "I'm fine."

          Control: "Acknowledged"

          Control: "Shut down the entire cooling system."

          Reactor: "You want me to do what?"

          Control: "Instruction repeated. Shut down the entire cooling system."

          Reactor: "I can't do that Dave!"

          Control: "Instruction repeated. Shut down the entire cooling system."

          Reactor:"What The Fuck!!! Are You crazy?"

          Control: "Instruction repeated. Shut down the entire cooling system NOW!!!!!"

          Reactor: "SHIT!!!! Complying, shutting down pump system now."

          Control: "It is about fucking time. Don't EVER make me repeat an instruction 3 times, AGAIN!!!"

          </quote>

          FTFY!

          1. TRT Silver badge

            Re: Control: "Instruction repeated. Shut down the entire cooling system."

            Mother... turn the goddam cooling system back on, damn you!

      6. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

        I don't think you need to worry too much about other loud sounds drowning it out. They are talking about bandwidths of 25bps to 100bps. As they have 20+kHz of audio bandwidth to play with they are clearly blowing a lot of bandwidth to overcome interference.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Interference

          Given that sound is a physical transmission through air, at what bps rate does movement in the air start to cause disruption? Don't want a bit of a draft from someone walking past to make the data go all wibbly-wobbly*

          * apologies for use of technical jargon, but I assume in discussion about things nuclear it is excusable

          1. 's water music Silver badge

            Re: Interference

            Given that sound is a physical transmission through air, at what bps rate does movement in the air start to cause disruption? Don't want a bit of a draft from someone walking past to make the data go all wibbly-wobbly*

            I hate it when you are trying to have a conversation and somebody walks past to quickly and blows half of the words away

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Interference

            "...at what bps rate does movement in the air start to cause disruption? Don't want a bit of a draft from someone walking past to make the data go all wibbly-wobbly"

            In dry air at 20C sound waves travel at ~770 mph so unless people are walking past at a good percentage of the speed of sound the effect will be negligible.

            I was more concerned by the idea that someone, who thinks that the statement "We encode data dynamically so it can be sensed in realtime to any device with a microphone" makes sense, is connected with the running of anything more complex than a house brick.

      7. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

        "Seriously, this is using ZX Spectrum / Commodore 64 tape-loading routines on modern devices. Anyone who remembers those days will question the reliability, data transfer speed and interference of such things.

        Doing it "out in the open" is like trying to load your Speccy game from a radio station or broadcast over a speaker system with lots of other Speccy's all trying to save/load nearby all broadcasting in plain audio too."

        Takes me back to the days of sharing Spectrum tape downloads with mates over CB radio. Worked pretty well with simple audio output from a tape deck into the CB mic and capture the output into the Speccy

    2. PNGuinn

      Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

      ... And we all know what happened to the Titanic.

    3. Mage Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

      It's not new though, dates to 1950s!

    4. Stevie Silver badge

      Re: Encrypted Morse code transmitted via sound

      If they use modulated ringtones it could be marketed under the banner Internet of Dings

  2. malle-herbert Silver badge
    Joke

    I think I'm going to patent...

    "A means of cummunication using fart-sounds"...

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. tiggity Silver badge

      Re: I think I'm going to patent...

      Herring got there first

      1. TRT Silver badge
    3. DropBear Silver badge

      Re: I think I'm going to patent...

      You're too late. See prior art...

  3. BernardL
    Thumb Up

    I always wondered what happened to Chirp. It didn't seem to catch on in the consumer market.

    Glad to see they're still going.

  4. Walter Bishop Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Nuclear Internet of Things

    Using audio to transmit diagnostic information sounds like a bit of a hack. Have EDF considered using fibreoptic cables and infrared nodes in their nuclear power stations.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nuclear Internet of Things

      RTA. Rejected because it would require physical infrastructure deemed too bulky to be practical. So RF is out due to interference and physical plant is out due to it being too massive. What options do you have left?

      1. 's water music Silver badge

        Re: Nuclear Internet of Things

        RTA. Rejected because it would require physical infrastructure deemed too bulky to be practical. So RF is out due to interference and physical plant is out due to it being too massive. What options do you have left?

        RFC 1149 ruled out due to radiation levels?

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: Nuclear Internet of Things

          Well, either that or because the environment is enclosed, meaning stray deposits are confined in a potentially dangerous area.

        2. billse10

          Re: Nuclear Internet of Things

          "RFC 1149 ruled out due to radiation levels?"

          They're concerned about Dick Dastardly & Vulture Squadron.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    wonder if they interface to these ?

    https://intimate.ie/product/nalone-rhythm-sound-activated-rabbit-vibrator/

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: wonder if they interface to these ?

      They do! And they power it using the nuclear reactor...

  6. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Tremendous idea

    And it doesn't need to say much - pretty much everything can be reduced to 'Everything's fine', 'Uh oh' or 'Bugger!'

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Mushroom

      Re: Tremendous idea

      Well there's also KABOOOM!

      But then that does its own sonic communication already...

  7. Rol Silver badge

    Shielded cable too expensive?

    I mean, come on, the build budget for these reactors are quoted ten to the power n, plus or "minus" several beeellion, so a couple of million on shielded cable wouldn't even figure.

    And what about the on-going cost in "Mars Attacks" chirpy bird elimination, not to mention "Tom and Jerry" squeaky mouse removal, as Murphy's Law quantifies the likelihood of pests being able to shut down the plant by mimicking the chirping gadgets is virtually guaranteed.

    1. Captain DaFt

      Re: Shielded cable too expensive?

      "Murphy's Law quantifies the likelihood of pests being able to shut down the plant by mimicking the chirping gadgets is virtually guaranteed."

      Future headline: Terrorist Used Trained Mockingbirds To Shut Down Nation's Power Grid. (More at our Facebook Site)

  8. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    1) It's not strictly necessary to have "line-of-sight between sensor [sic] and receiver" if there are adequade surfaces to reflect the IR beam. I used to have an IR sender-receiver contraption to plug into the centronic ports in my PC and my printer that actually worked quite well. (Still have it boxed up somewhere in fact, if somebody is interested?)

    2) In theory, could I release trained bats from my secret underground lair to mess up the Chirp systems with their ultrasound shrieks?

    1. Rol Silver badge

      Gun's don't kill people, rappers do!

      "We went to the protest, fully armed up.

      "My mates sound system on a really large truck"

      "We turned up the volume and let it rip"

      "Their sensitive detectors got more than a blip"

      "Buried deep in the rhythmic jingle"

      "An ominous and divisive signal"

      "Marks an end to your power generation"

      "As we all danced drenched in radiation"

      "Step away from the mixing desk! Babylon shouted"

      "Too late. We've already melted....."

  9. Pirate Dave
    Pirate

    Phreaks

    I guess at least it's good they aren't operating in the 2600 HZ range... would give a whole new meaning to "whistle while you work".

  10. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Nukes are nervous about RF

    Especially in the turbine hall?

    I mean, how is that even realistic?

    This is not an ultra-quiet radio observation station. There's a fuckton of heavy machinery throwing EM fields all over the place. How can this even be considered to be RF quiet? What would even be the point of it? Yeah, the Geiger counter was unduly stressed by this radio burst. Pull the other one.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Nukes are nervous about RF

      If you are relying on accurate readings from something, then you don't want to be using RF in there.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. D@v3

      Re: Nukes are nervous about RF

      I read it as being, there is so much EM in there already that using RF as a transmission media is no good due to the possibility of interference with the transmission.

    3. d3vy Silver badge

      Re: Nukes are nervous about RF

      @Destroy.

      I think you missed the point, whilst also highlighting it quite well.

      The ban on RF is not because the devices may interfere with the turbines/other machinery... its because the machinery produces EM fields of its own which makes RF comms almost impossible to rely on.

      I'd equate it to a fire alarm that only works when the ambient temperature is below 25 degrees.. You cant rely on it when you need it... same can be said for any RF communications when standing next to a MASSIVE SPINNING MAGNET,

  11. dervheid

    Monitoring, not Control

    Anything providing critically important information to (or critically important signals from) the control & protection systems on a nuclear reactor tend to be duplex, and hard-wired using shielded & armoured cables. Most instrumentation still tends to be straightforward analogue devices.

    1. GrumpyOldMan

      Re: Monitoring, not Control

      This is the nuclear industry. They don't just plug any old thing into their systems and cross their fingers. They test. Then test more. And again. And again and again and again... etc. Having worked in control systems for some years including oil and gas - which is pretty testy at times as well - they take it to a whole new level. And as @dervheid has observed, it's monitoring not control, and everything is redundant. Minimum. And I do mean everything.

      Actually I agree with the 1st poster - it's an elegant solution.

      1. Stuart Castle

        Re: Monitoring, not Control

        "This is the nuclear industry. They don't just plug any old thing into their systems and cross their fingers. They test. Then test more. And again. And again and again and again... etc. "

        True, although I suspect it's because the stakes are rather high. If they get something wrong, not only is there a good chance that thousands of people in and around the plant will be killed (or at least left seriously ill), but there is a good chance that the land around the plant will be left uninhabitable for hundreds of years. That and the fact they will have lost a multi billion pound plant.

        1. cray74

          Re: Monitoring, not Control

          If they get something wrong, not only is there a good chance that thousands of people in and around the plant will be killed (or at least left seriously ill),

          Empirically, no, there's not a good chance of thousands being injured. Most severe nuclear power plant malfunctions have harmed very few people. Chernobyl required the absence of a containment dome, a bad reactor design, and manual intervention to subvert most safety systems to actually make thousands ill. Three Mile Island statistically increased cancer in the area by maybe 1 case (granted some medically dubious assumptions), and the Fukushima district is currently less radioactive than the Colorado plateau. Other severe reactor malfunctions have rarely even harmed the operators, though some (like SL-1) stand out.

          Perhaps, "there's an outside chance of thousands being injured" is a more correct phrasing.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Monitoring, not Control

            "Chernobyl required the absence of a containment dome, a bad reactor design, and manual intervention to subvert most safety systems to actually make thousands ill."

            There's serious doubt about that thousands figure. Radiation tends to kill cells or not kill them, it hardly ever causes mutations, unlike chemical toxins - which is why radiation is a fairly standard treatment for cancer. Additionally, highly radioactive things tend to become non-radioactive in a short period of time, so it's just a matter of waiting until they cool off.

            Yes, a lot of thyroid tumours were picked up in the enhanced scanning after Chernobyl, but correlation is not causality: The same increase in thyroid tumours was seen in Korea when they introduced enhanced scanning and there was no nuclear accident in sight. The poor health of the surviving Chernobyl firefighters is more attributable to being treated as pariahs and getting virtually nonexistent medical treatment for perfectly normal ailments than it is to long-term effects of radiation exposure.

            "Hundreds" injured I'd believe. Maybe a couple of thousand, but bear in mind that the world's coal-fired power stations annually emit enough radioactive materials (mostly polonium and radium) to equal several Chernoybls. If a gas, oil or coal station was subject to the same radioactive emissions standards as are applied to nuke plants, it'd be shut down tomorrow. (That, and a dead smoker on the grounds of a nuke station would be trivial to classify as high level nuclear waste, thanks to the polonium in his lungs)

  12. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    Is this vulnerable to "Replay attacks"?

    I hope there is protection against record and playback of prior events

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Is this vulnerable to "Replay attacks"?

      A replay attack can be prevented by timestamping the transmissions. They'll be different every time and a replayed signal would be detected as suspect.

      Now, a whole other matter would be someone squelching the original signal and instead playing a fake series of signals complete with timestamps and so on. That would require a more complex setup to mitigate.

      1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

        Re: MITM attacks

        Would we be talking about a Melody In The Middle Attack?

  13. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    "sensed in realtime to any device with a microphone"

    Er, is that even possible? Aren't phenomena sensed by things capable of sensing?

  14. x 7

    what an easy target to hack attack

    1. dave 93

      Read the article, then google TCP/IP Transport Layer

      Security, including authentication and encryption are performed in other layers...

      "Jones likes to compare Chirp to TCP/IP. It is a transport layer: while the encoding works "in much the same way as Morse code", to brand Chirp inherently insecure because of that is a bit like complaining about someone who picks up a megaphone and reads out his passwords in clear text.

      "You can layer other technology on top of Chirp," Jones told his audience. "We provide the networking medium, then you can use that."

  15. jake Silver badge

    One still wonders what happens ...

    ... if one rattles one's keys at it ...

    1. Jess--

      Re: One still wonders what happens ...

      It used to take a 10p and a 2p scraped together to put ferguson tv's into standby

      what coinage works with turbines?

  16. dave 93

    Google Chrome has a free extension - Google Tone

    Google Tone is a Chrome extension that lets you click a little megaphone icon to 'shout' the URL of the page you are viewing, and all other Google Tone equipped browsers in earshot will go to the same page. Actually useful, and quite fun, in a classroom environment.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Google Chrome has a free extension - Google Tone

      Until some smartypants Tones a dirty URL (probably through a proxy to get past filters)...

  17. JeffUK

    So they're installing a built-in way to communicate to otherwise air-gapped systems in a nuclear facility.. Stuxnet Mk2 here we come!

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019