Tech Trends: Unmanned Infrastructure is the Next Gold Rush

Dec. 13, 2021
The new Infrastructure Bill may signal the beginning of a scramble to secure these critical sites

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Security Business magazine. When sharing, don’t forget to mention Security Business magazine on LinkedIn and @SecBusinessMag on Twitter.

In 1799, 12-year-old Conrad Reed uncovered a 17-pound gold nugget while fishing. Within four years, his father John Reed had established the first gold mine in the United States. It was the start of the Carolina Gold Rush, which was the first of several gold rushes in the United States.

Like cannabis, smart cities and countless emerging markets that came before them, today the security industry stands on the precipice of a new vertical market gold rush – this time it is unmanned infrastructure. To paraphrase a definition coined by ASSA ABLOY, the term unmanned infrastructure comprises unmanned locations that house technology vital to the interconnection and control of critical assets.

Unmanned infrastructure sits quietly and unassuming in urban and rural areas. To say it is everywhere is an understatement. It is passed at every signaled street intersection. It is mounted in electrical substations, at cell towers, on remote natural gas and oil pipelines, on the side of buildings, and more.

At its most basic, unmanned infrastructure is a NEMA enclosure with a network switch installed inside. Many locations also carry secure Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) data, as well as other less secure data. Depending on network controls or device hardening, access to the network is a vulnerability.

According to the United States Access Board, in 2003 the U.S. had more than 300,000 signaled intersections – a number that has grown significantly since then. In 2014, there were more than 55,000 substations, and as of 2019, there were 220,000-plus cell towers in the United States. For 5G to be implemented, AT&T says an additional 300,000 new towers will be needed.

The Nugget

In the fall of 2018, the City of Atlanta was gearing up to host Super Bowl LIII, in which the President of the United States (POTUS) was attending. The Department of Homeland Security identified nearly 200 intersections within the city that had to be secured to prevent physical or cyber-attacks that would force POTUS to deviate travel.

Their initial solution was to weld shut every Traffic Control Box (TCB); however, they settled instead on a physical access control solution to lock the cabinet.

The components were simple: two locks (specifically to replace a Corbin Cabinet Lock); a two-door PoE access control panel; two readers and an overall access control platform to control and monitor them.

In the end, this served as a wake-up call to cities and municipalities – as well as security providers – across the country: These unmanned sites needed security.

Mining for Gold

Any type of mining comes with risk, and securing unmanned infrastructure is risky because it is relatively new, and very few are doing it. The sales cycle is challenging, and it involves a great deal of customer education and time.

While the market is and will be rewarding, many manufacturers and system integrators will never discover the “gold.” Why? Manufacturers will say unmanned infrastructure requires panels to be able to withstand temperatures of -40° F to 150°F or more, and a component cost of almost double what it takes to make a “regular” two-door panel. Systems integrators will be unfamiliar with the unmanned infrastructure space and will need to be educated.

The good news is that a few prospectors are already out in front evangelizing this concept; and both integrators and manufacturers have the potential to reap rewards from these early prospectors’ toil.

The opportunity is huge: There are nearly a million unsecured unmanned infrastructure locations in the United States alone, and that number is growing quickly. If a company put out a bid for 1,500 access control doors, every manufacturer or integrator would jump at the opportunity. Those 1,500 doors are a general ballpark estimate for a major city’s unmanned infrastructure. Also consider that many of these projects also lead to additional security implementations such as cameras used for security and traffic monitoring, or other smart city sensors.

The Reward

Initially not knowing what the strange yellow rock his son found, John Reed used it for three years as a simple doorstop. For many years, unmanned infrastructure has sat like the proverbial doorstop. It has always been around, and few have paid it any attention.

Since 1974, the Corbin Cabinet Lock has been factory-installed on enclosures from the manufacturer – not just the TCBs, but many other cabinets as well. Today anyone can buy a key to these locks on eBay for around $8. All it takes is this key to enable a physical breach that grants a cyber-attacker access to the network. Thus, cities, critical infrastructure, mobile infrastructure, and others that use unmanned infrastructure are realizing the importance of both physical and cyber controls.

The value statement for these customers is not simply replacing one lock with a better one; instead, integrators should emphasize an improvement in physical controls to prevent cybersecurity threats; the ability to better manage contractors; and increased visualized data, use and connectivity.

Increased Funding Signals the Beginning of the Rush

President Biden signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law on Nov. 15 that outlines $550 billion of new federal investments in America's infrastructure – from bridges and roads to critical infrastructure like cell towers, and water and energy systems. While most cities and states have struggled in the past for budget to implement security, this bill should pave the way for security at many of these unmanned sites.

Unmanned infrastructure is poised to be the next gold rush of the security industry; the question is how many manufacturers and system integrators are going to capitalize on this opportunity, and how many are going to be left behind. A prospecting integrator can find opportunities for this gold in every city in the world.

Jon Polly is the Chief Solutions Officer for ProTecht Solutions Partners, a security consulting company focused on smart city surveillance. Connect with him on linkedin:

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