Here’s how your water taps could be controlled in the cloud

5 Sep 2017

The Ditaca team. Image: TechWatch

TechWatch editor Emily McDaid meets Ditaca, a Belfast-based start-up that is bringing everyday utilities into the cloud.

Sakir Sezer is no stranger to the Invent awards, having been a previous finalist and winner when they were called the £25k Awards.

As director of research at CSIT, Sezer has been involved in groundbreaking research and start-up ventures. He’s also a professor for communications systems security at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).

His latest venture, Ditaca, equips legacy industrial control systems (ICS) to bring them securely into the cloud.

‘Water or electrical providers need to be able to take advantage of all the digital innovation, ease and access of cloud applications’

Along with his co-founders, BooJoong Kang, Matthew Hagan and Rafiullah Khan, Sezer’s innovation helps to turn industries such as utilities and manufacturing into digitally nimble, cloud-based businesses.

Because we’re literally talking about the water from your taps being controlled by the internet, this, of course, requires the highest levels of security. For example, a utility provider could remotely manage infrastructure, such as water valves that are spread all over a city.

Sezer explained: “The face of the cloud has evolved so much in the past seven years. For all types of businesses, services used to be managed from their own data centres; now, it’s over the cloud. Industrial control systems should be no different. Water or electrical providers need to be able to take advantage of all the digital innovation, ease and access of cloud applications. But they require the most advanced security.”

ICS are typically installed for 30 or 40 years, much longer than the lifespan of other devices such as mobile phones (18 months, on average).

Ditaca isn’t asking councils and utilities to install new equipment. “We connect legacy devices while making them more – not less – secure,” Sezer said.

Ditaca’s solution comprises both software and hardware. The software orchestrates the interface between ICS and the cloud. It authenticates, and builds redundancy and resiliency, while monitoring for anti-tampering. This works in conjunction with hardware. A micro-appliance, “about half the size of a matchbox”, sits on the various devices that comprise the business.

Ditaca plans to target power and utilities companies first, then manufacturers, then consumer protection on devices such as smart TVs.

How does the micro-device connect to legacy devices, such as water valves?

The legacy devices have ethernet connections and the device sits on that line, much the way you’d use a splitter at home to separate your phone and internet lines.

Are you spinning out from QUB soon? What’s in your immediate future?

We plan to start approaching private investors by year end. We’re finalising our business plans now. We’d need to recruit, possibly, a CEO and a VP of sales and marketing externally.

Will you remain based in NI?

Engineering will remain in NI while possibly headquartering the company in the US. The US is our biggest market opportunity. But, in order to target customers there, you have to be there.

How much will it cost?

One of the major advantages of the cloud is that businesses don’t need their own IT kit and IT guy. They can effectively use smart cities apps with a service-based business model, such as ours.

Ditaca’s annual subscription cost will range between £200 per device for less than 100 devices, and £20 per device for more than 100,000.

Where, around the world, are smart cities ahead of the game?

[South] Korea is an example of a country where smart utilities are advanced, enabling them to make better use of renewable energy, electric cars and other carbon-friendly transport. They can take control of city-wide electricity usage patterns, by controlling pricing at peak or non-peak times, and through advanced storage – all this is done with cloud-based apps.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

The annual Invent competition is run by Connect at Catalyst Inc, and aims to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2017 will take place on Thursday 5 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund and the chance to attend a Northern Ireland tech mission to California.

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland