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Stronger cybersecurity for factories of the future

Vimal Samuel Buck ’02 and his team are working to protect autonomous manufacturing systems from hackers
Ohio State researcher Vimal Buck sits next two a student as they both review data.
Ohio State researcher Vimal Buck (left) is leading an effort to help improve cybersecurity in the manufacturing realm. (Logan Wallace)

A visit to Ohio State’s Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence (CDME) is like peeking into the future of industry. On any given day, dozens of students are hard at work on a slew of projects, their necks craned over tiny circuit boards, their eyes glued to screens of complex code. Some tinker with the settings on massive 3D printers.

Deep inside the facility, where robotic arms are connected to a row of computers, Vimal Samuel Buck ’02 and his team are focused on a question that looms over all this work: How do we protect it from hackers?

“The factories of the future are pretty much all interconnected, and they’re all on the Internet,” says Buck, senior researcher and director of cybersecurity at CDME.

That advanced technology brings plenty of benefits, but also exposes factories to the increasing possibility of cyberintrusion. As automation becomes more vital to manufacturing, the chances grow that something could go wrong.

When it does, workers need to know whether the issue they’re encountering is normal and easily fixable, or if the cause is more nefarious.

Buck and a team of researchers, undergraduates and graduate students in CDME’s Artifically Intelligent Manufacturing Systems (AIMS) lab are working on methods to predict the trustworthiness of robotic equipment and identify when it’s behaving abnormally.

“Cybersecurity with robotics is kind of really scary,” says Adam Exley, a junior majoring in computer and electrical engineering who has worked at AIMS since he was a freshman. “If you have a giant robotic arm, if someone compromises it in some way, it can destroy stuff. They weigh thousands of pounds, and they can move insanely quickly. … They can make the robot say it’s somewhere it actually isn’t. They can have it whip around 180 degrees and slap someone in the face, but to the computer system it just looks like it’s just standing there.”

The AIMS team is taking an interdisciplinary and multipronged approach to this problem. Cameras and sensors are used to monitor the equipment, and the code that runs the automated systems is examined for signs that something’s wrong.

They’re also leveraging Ohio State’s wide breadth of research prowess, bringing in experts of machine learning and integrated systems from the Department of Integrated Systems Engineering, and making use of the university’s penetration testing team to search for cyber vulnerabilities.

Vimal Buck is leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve cybersecurity for industry. (Logan Wallace)

“That’s one thing we have — the in-house expertise of people who are responsible for securing hundreds of buildings, airports, hospitals, and they’re able to come in with that really deep technical knowledge and skillset,” Buck says. “That’s a strength of Ohio State, just being so big, with so many different resources stretching across campus.”

Buck’s team also partnered with researchers at Texas A&M, providing students with a chance to collaborate with others in the field and make connections. That’s been a big draw for those preparing for careers in rapidly changing industries.

“The reason I came to CDME was I wanted to work in an area that had a multidisciplinary focus, that brought in a lot of different people of different areas of expertise, so I could learn from multiple people,” says Adam Buynak, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who has helped run the AIMS lab. After finishing his program, he plans to work in research and development, specializing in autonomous robotic systems. “That was critical to me, and I didn’t find that in many other research areas or research labs.”

Industrial cybersecurity will have to be a collaborative effort in the future. That’s why Buck is sharing the knowledge his team has gained with practitioners across the state of Ohio. He’s creating training modules and a course for the Ohio Cyber Range Institute, hoping to develop a workforce better educated in cybersecurity in one of the country’s main hubs for manufacturing.

“A long time ago, there were safety engineers, and it was somebody’s job to do safety,” Buck says. “And now it’s everybody’s job to do safety. It sort of touches everything. And I think cybersecurity is going to go that way, too.

“It’s not going to be that you need the cybersecurity person at your factory who’s just protecting against hackers. Basically, all the engineering talent is going to have to learn some of the basic skills. That’s where it has to get to. It’s going to impact every aspect of industrial automation and factories.”

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