Cybersecurity push

Rockwell Collins partners with UND electrical engineers, students on project to make UAS data more secure

Nicholas Christian, Prakash Ranganathan and Joseph Englund

UND Electrical Engineer Prakash Ranganathan (center) is joned by Electrical Engineering undergrads (left) Nicholas Christian, Grand Forks; and Joseph Englund, Karlstad, Minn. The students are part of the team working on Ranganathan’s Rockwell Collins cybersecurity grant. Photo courtesy of Juan Pedraza.

Don’t let the dollar number fool you: it’s a $25,000 exploratory grant signaling an innovative public-private partnership in the arcane world of cybersecurity.

Rockwell-Collins, an aerospace tech company based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and an employer of more than 140 plus of UND alums, recently awarded UND electrical engineering faculty member Prakash Ranganathan $25,000 to open an exploratory UAS-related research initiative.

“This is a unique research project, and follows a key interest—cybersecurity—of North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott,” said Ranganathan, who is employing several students on the project.

The Rockwell Collins grant, which Ranganathan received after following up one of the company’s annual Call for Proposal, will set up a geo-defense detection system for unmanned aircraft systems.

Unidentified small UAS can pose a serious risk to key infrastructures. While used mostly by the military, small UAS, or drones, are now widely available. With increased availability comes increased risk. Traditional defense mechanisms against small UAS, such as shooting them down, pose safety risks in many situations.

“We want to learn how to set up parameters for swarms that can enable them to detect and catch rogue drones—that’s to protect critical infrastructure such as airports, power grids,” said Ranganathan, who graduated from North Dakota State University in 2013 with a PhD in software engineering and has since developed, among others, an expertise in cyberphysical systems.

“That’s anything involving the nexus of sensing, communications, computation, security, and control,” said Ranganathan. “So with this grant we want to develop the advanced UAS swarm technology to control, rather than shoot down, rogue drones. We want to gain access and control of such drones and land them safely, then do post-analysis as well.”

Ranganathan explains that the grant funds will primarily used to acquire equipment and supplies needed to set up test-bed for “spoofing” and counter-UAS operations. Additionally, he says, the grant will allow him and his student team to experiment methods for detection and mitigation.

“We anticipate building our own drone as because current off-the-shelf models have limitations, such as software that prevents them from flying into restricted areas,” Ranganathan said. “

This grant is important—and signals another industry vote of confidence in the UND UAS enterprise—because there currently is very limited or no technology out there that addresses the issue of intercepting rogue drones in a manner consistent with public safety.

The grant officially is titled “Geo-Fence Detection System (GFDS) for Unmanned Aerial Vehicular Airspace to provide Counter Autonomy.”

“Ours was on 15 proposals selected of 45 submitted,” Ranganathan said.

“We believe Ranganathan’s proposal thoroughly addressed the criteria, and that this project will further the educational excellence of students while preparing them for rewarding engineering careers at Rockwell Collins,” said Elise Loan, university relations liaison with Rockwell Collins. “We are very excited about the proposed project and appreciate the effort extended by the University of North Dakota to align the project to Rockwell Collins criteria,” said Roger French, UND EE alumni and Rockwell Industry advisor for the project.

By Juan Pedraza for UND’s Division of Research & Economic Development