On the forefront

UND Electrical Engineering team enjoys private-sector and federal support in mission to thwart cyberattacks

: l-r Mohsen Riahi Manesh, Isfahan, Iran, PhD student; Michael Mullins, La Grande, OR, research enginee; Kyle Foerster, Pisek, ND, master’s student (Juan Pedraza photo)

UND Electrical Engineer Naima Kaabouch and her team of graduate students (pictured above left to right: Mohsen Riahi Manesh, Isfahan, Iran, Ph.D. student; Michael Mullins, La Grande, Ore., research engineer; and Kyle Foerster, Pisek, N.D., master’s student) are looking at how to stop bad actors from using cyberattacks to mess with UAS systems. Image courtesy of Juan Pedraza.

Flying without hitting something is a top priority for the safety and security of aircraft and its occupants: you want to avoid any collisions and casualties.

That’s the goal of every flight—manned or unmanned—plus, of course, landing safely. But with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), those key goals can be thwarted by cyberattacks.

UND Electrical Engineering faculty member Naima Kaabouch focuses on devising ways to stop such intrusions. Her work covers jamming, spoofing and many other attacks that target UAS collision avoidance technologies: the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) device, which broadcasts information about the aircraft carrying this device.

ADS-B, Kaabouch explains, relays information about the aircraft’s identification, position and velocity to nearby aircraft and ground stations.

“ADS-B attacks can lead to the appearance of fake aircraft or the disappearance of real aircraft from the visualization systems of pilots and air controllers,” said Kaabouch, an expert in wireless communications and networks, signal processing and cybersecurity in the College of Engineering & Mines.

Naima Kaabouch

UND Electrical Engineering faculty member Naima Kaabouch (standing) focuses a lot of her time these days on devising ways to stop aerial intrusions. Her work covers jamming, spoofing and many other attacks that target UAS collision avoidance technologies. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today

Counterattack techniques

With federal grants and support from the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, Kaabouch and her team of graduate students are looking at how to stop bad actors from using cyberattacks to mess with UAS systems.

Kaabouch’s doctoral student, Mohsen Riahi Manesh (from Isfahan, Iran), is looking at attacks on UAS ADS-B system. Manesh is also investigating attacks that target other aircraft systems, such as GPS.

“The objective is to develop counterattack techniques for all aircraft,” said Manesh. “The race is on as federal regulators will require that by 2020 all aircraft must have ADS-B on board.”

Also at UND, a $1-million ND Research grant is supporting collaborative work between Kaabouch’s team and Harris, a private-sector communication and information tech giant. For this grant, Kaabouch is working with Chris Theisen (director of research and development for the Northern Plains Test Site) and Mark Askelson (interim executive director of UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems) to analyze all the safety concerns and hazards related to UAS.

The grant also supports Kaabouch’s team in developing a detect-and-avoid system that will be integrated into the commercial Harris’s RangeView software, which allows pilots and air controllers to monitor aircraft to avoid any conflict.

Members of Kaabouch’s team dedicated to this project are Kyle Foerster, from Pisek, N.D., and research engineer Michael Mullins, from La Grande, Ore.

Realistic lab work

An innovation in Kaabouch’s research is the development and use of the so-called “Hardware in the Loop and Software in the Loop” platforms, which enable the team to test solutions using realistic scenarios in lab settings.

“We can actually simulate a flight in the lab,” said Mullins, who also is a licensed pilot and flight instructor. “With these simulations, there are no FAA regulations to comply with.

“This gives us the freedom to simulate many different scenarios with low cost and no risk.”

Foerster is the team’s head programmer. Under Kaabouch, he is working with Harris on integrating the detect-and-avoid algorithm into the Harris RangeView commercial software.

“We are very excited to be working on the cutting edge of cybersecurity for UAS, and integrating our detect-and-avoid algorithm,” said Kaabouch. “This is really about …safety in the air for aircraft and people.”

By Juan Miguel Pedraza, Office of the UND Vice President of Research & Economic Development