Combatting Cyberattack : All in a days work

Assistant Professor Prakash Ranganathan (right) with student  holds an UAS
Assistant Professor Prakash Ranganathan (right) with student Eric Horton (left) holds an UAS

A UND lab is trying to make the world’s growing fleet of unmanned aircraft and electric utilities less susceptible to malicious attacks that could spell widespread for the public. 

You could say electrical engineer Prakash Ranganathan and his team of researchers at the University of North Dakota’s Secure Cyber Physical Systems and Data Sciences Laboratory are the elite special forces on a high-tech battlefield.

It’s their job to identify vulnerabilities that make the world’s growing fleet of unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and the nation’s electrical utility grid susceptible to nefarious cyberattacks. Their mission, in the end, is to protect the public from a ubiquitous and hidden foe that’s becoming more dangerous and tech-savvy every day.

Ranganathan’s efforts have been recognized by North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott, who asked the UND assistant professor to work collaboratively with University System partners on cybersecurity research as part of the chancellor’s newly unveiled Nexus ND initiative. As associate lead, Ranganathan works closely with cybersecurity initiative leader Kendall Nygard, professor of computer science at North Dakota State University.

Ranganathan’s lab is on the second floor of UND’s Harrington Hall, part of the College of Engineering and Mines.


In the Air

Most recently, Ranganathan and his team have been conducting cyber-security research for private-sector partner Rockwell Collins Corp., based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The goal of the project is to build defense mechanisms, through software algorithms, that fend off cyberthreats in UAS environments.

As part of this project, Eric Horton, an electrical engineering undergrad, has been investigating cyberattacks on Global Positioning Systems (GPS) datasets. GPS is the worldwide navigational and timing utility that provides accurate positioning services to publics on the move, as well as civil and defense agencies. It’s also a critical component of UAS tracking and navigation.

“As an essential element of the global information infrastructure, cybersecurity of GPS faces serious challenges,” Ranganathan said.

Some important public systems even rely on GPS as a security measure, but civilian GPS, itself, has no protection against malicious acts such as “spoofing” — security breaches caused when satellite signals are altered to provide erroneous location and timing data.

Ranganathan says this kind of spoofing can be a major threat to homeland security, and his research team is trying to understand the nature of these attacks and make civilian GPS more secure.

“We’ve developed a means to GPS spoof (UAS) and are now looking into several methods to defend against the spoofing attacks,” he said. “Initial tests provide encouraging results.”

Ranganathan and his research team are confident that this work will accelerate the development of defense technology against GPS-based attacks. And with the help of Roger French, a UND alumnus and lead Rockwell Collins engineer on the grant project, UND researchers will be a big part of that surge.


Simulated Attacks

Part of the research collaboration with Rockwell Collins is an opportunity for UND undergraduate students to complete a capstone course in cybersecurity. Currently, Ranganathan is advising five electrical engineering students in the capstone course: Kevin Casagrande, Joshua Friederichs, Clarissa Gonzalez, Tanya Humphries and Zachary Tindell.

A fun and valuable component of the capstone course is the development of a “UAS environment” that lets students experience simulated cyberattacks and defenses against them for fixed and rotary-wing UAS. The project is structured so the students are broken down into teams: a Red Team (Attack) and Blue Team (Defense).


Protecting the Grid

Supported, in part, by a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Ranganathan’s lab also is working with electric utilities to address security challenges for tomorrow’s more technologically advanced power grid. Others involved in the project are co-principal investigator Naima Kaabouch, associate professor of electrical engineering, and  Arun Sukumaran Nair, an electrical engineering Ph.D. student advised by Ranganathan.

Ranganathan explains this so-called “smart grid” is a massive and complex electrical utilities network of millions of interconnected devices utilizing advanced information and communication technologies.

Here, Ranganathan’s research team is focusing on synchrophasors and phasor measurement units (PMUs), which make real-time monitoring, control and data analysis of the electric power grid possible. At the same time, however, PMUs can make smart-grid systems vulnerable to cyberattacks. This past summer, an undergrad exchange student working in Ranganathan’s lab, Erwan Olivio from France, developed encryption and decryption algorithms with the GPS data embedded in synchrophasors, which showed signs of improved network security.

Other students doing important work on the smart grid project in Ranganathan’s lab are electrical engineering grad students Nick Gellerman, Ranganath Vallakati, Anupam Mukherjee, Mitch Campion, Vedaste Mutambuka and Radha Krishnan.

In addition to Rockwell Collins and the NSF, Ranganathan’s research sponsors include the Wells Fargo Foundation, North Dakota Community Foundation, UND Research Development and Compliance Office, and NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research funding agencies.

According to the NSF, work such as that being undertaken in Ranganathan’s lab is expected to transform the way people interact with engineered systems just as the Internet has transformed the way people interact with information.

All that, and they’re protecting the world from cyberattacks that could spell doom for global defense capabilities and public utilities. All in a day’s work for the UND team.


By David Dodds

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