This Ohio State University researcher protects AI technology from cyberhackers

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

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

This advanced technology brings many benefits, but also exposes factories to the increasing threat of cyberattacks. As automation becomes more important in manufacturing, the likelihood that something could go wrong increases.

When it does, workers need to know if it’s a normal and easily fixed problem, or if the cause is more nefarious.

Buck and a team of researchers, undergraduate and graduate students in CDME’s Artificially Intelligent Manufacturing Systems (AIMS) Laboratory are working on methods to predict the trustworthiness of robotic equipment and detect abnormal behavior.

“Cybersecurity in robots is really scary,” says Adam Exley, a computer and electrical engineering student who has been working at AIMS since his first semester. “If you have a huge robotic arm and someone compromises it in some way, it can destroy things. They weigh thousands of pounds and can move insanely fast. … They can make the robot claim it’s somewhere it’s really not. They can turn it 180 degrees and punch someone in the face, but to the computer system it looks like it’s just standing there.”

The AIMS team is taking an interdisciplinary and multi-pronged approach to solving this problem. Cameras and sensors are used to monitor the devices, and the code that controls the automated systems is examined for signs that something is wrong.

The team is also taking advantage of Ohio State University’s broad range of research capabilities, bringing in machine learning and integrated systems experts from the Integrated Systems Engineering Department and assisting the university’s penetration testing team in finding cyber vulnerabilities.

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