A data-communication protocol has been devised to enable secure, reliable remote control of processes and equipment via a collision-based network, while using minimal bandwidth and computation. The network could be the Internet or an intranet. Control is made secure by use of both a password and a dynamic key, which is sent transparently to a remote user by the controlled computer (that is, the computer, located at the site of the equipment or process to be controlled, that exerts direct control over the process). The protocol functions in the presence of network latency, overcomes errors caused by missed dynamic keys, and defeats attempts by unauthorized remote users to gain control. The protocol is not suitable for real-time control, but is well suited for applications in which control latencies up to about 0.5 second are acceptable.

The encryption scheme involves the use of both a dynamic and a private key, without any additional overhead that would degrade performance. The dynamic key is embedded in the equipment-or process-monitor data packets sent out by the controlled computer: in other words, the dynamic key is a subset of the data in each such data packet. The controlled computer maintains a history of the last 3 to 5 data packets for use in decrypting incoming control commands. In addition, the controlled computer records a private key (password) that is given to the remote computer. The encrypted incoming command is permuted by both the dynamic and private key. A person who records the command data in a given packet for hostile purposes cannot use that packet after the public key expires (typically within 3 seconds). Even a person in possession of an unauthorized copy of the command/remote-display software cannot use that software in the absence of the password.

The use of a dynamic key embedded in the outgoing data makes the central processing unit overhead very small. The use of a National Instruments DataSocket™ (or equivalent) protocol or the User Datagram Protocol makes it possible to obtain reasonably short response times: Typical response times in event-driven control, using packets sized ≤300 bytes, are <0.2 second for commands issued from locations anywhere on Earth.

The protocol requires that control commands represent absolute values of controlled parameters (e.g., a specified temperature), as distinguished from changes in values of controlled parameters (e.g., a specified increment of temperature). Each command is issued three or more times to ensure delivery in crowded networks. The use of absolute-value commands prevents additional (redundant) commands from causing trouble. Because a remote controlling computer receives “talkback” in the form of data packets from the controlled computer, typically within a time interval ≤1 s, the controlling computer can re-issue a command if network failure has occurred.

The controlled computer, the process or equipment that it controls, and any human operator(s) at the site of the controlled equipment or process should be equipped with safety measures to prevent damage to equipment or injury to humans. These features could be a combination of software, external hardware, and intervention by the human operator(s). The protocol is not fail-safe, but by adopting these safety measures as part of the protocol, one makes the protocol a robust means of controlling remote processes and equipment by use of typical office computers via intranets and/or the Internet.

This work was done by Lewis Lineberger of Kennedy Space Center. For further information, contact the Kennedy Commercial Technology Office at (321) 867-8130.


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the March, 2005 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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