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THIS MONTH'S FEATURE ARTICLE
Engineers will be called upon to find solutions for the challenges the world will face in the 21st century. These articles highlight the diversity of the work which continues in the search for those solutions.

Technology Protects The Power Grid By Hacking Would-be Hackers
March 2019

For hackers, the U.S. energy grid is a treasure trove of classified information with vast potential for profit and mayhem. To be effective, the power grid’s protection system has to be a bit like a hacker: highly intelligent, flexible and able to learn rapidly.


Milos Manic, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of VCU College of Engineering.

Milos Manic, Ph.D., professor of computer science and director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Cybersecurity Center, along with colleagues at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), has developed a protection system that improves its own effectiveness as it watches and learns from those trying to break into the grid. The team’s Autonomic Intelligent Cyber Sensor (AICS) received an R&D 100 Award for 2018, a worldwide recognition of the year’s most promising inventions and innovations.

“An underground war of many years”

Dr. Manic calls foreign state actors’ ongoing attempts to infiltrate the power grid — and efforts to thwart them — “an underground war of many years.” These criminals aim to enter critical infrastructures such as energy systems to disrupt or compromise codes, screens login information and other assets for future attacks. The nightmare result would be an infrastructure shutdown in multiple locations, a so-called “Black Sky” event that would erase bank accounts, disable cell phones and devastate the economy. In that scenario, engineers would have less than 72 hours to restore the grid before batteries, food supplies, medicine and water run out.

With high stakes and increasingly sophisticated attackers, artificial intelligence and machine learning are key to respond to the challenges of protecting the grid’s interconnected systems, according to Dr. Manic.

“Hackers are much smarter than in the past. They don’t necessarily look at one particular component of the system,” Dr. Manic said. “Often they can fool the system by taking control of the behavior of two different components to mask their attack on a third.”

A nervous system for the power grid

Using artificial intelligence algorithms, AICS can look holistically at an array of interconnected systems including the electrical grid and adapt continually as attacks are attempted. It is inspired by the body’s autonomic nervous system, the largely unconscious functions that govern breathing, circulation and fight-or-flight responses. Once installed, AICS acts as a similar “nervous system” for a power grid, silently monitoring all of its components for unusual activity — and learning to spot threats that were unknown when it was first installed.

To “hack” the hacker, AICS often deploys honeypots, shadow systems that appear to be legitimate parts of the grid but that actually divert, trap and quarantine malicious actors. These honeypots allow asset owners to gather information that can help identify both a threat and a potentially compromised system.

“Honeypots can make a hacker think he has broken into a real system,” Dr. Manic said. “But if the hacker sees that the ‘system’ is not adequately responding, he knows it’s a honeypot.” For this reason, the system’s honeypots are also intelligently updating themselves.

Dr. Manic developed AICS with his INL colleagues Todd Vollmer, Ph.D., and Craig Rieger, Ph.D. Vollmer was Manic’s Ph.D. student at the University of Idaho. The AICS team formed eight years ago, and Dr. Manic continued to work on the project when he came to VCU in 2014. He holds a joint appointment with INL.

The U.S. Department of Energy is a major funder of the project. Drs. Manic, Rieger and Vollmer plan to continue working to develop future iterations of AICS to protect other technologies. ##



Feature Articles
Below are listed the 12 most recent Feature Articles.
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Technology Protects The Power Grid By Hacking Would-be Hackers
March 2019

Milos Manic, Ph.D., professor of computer science and director of VCU’s Cybersecurity Center, along with colleagues at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), has developed a protection system that…

NASA’s Webb Telescope To Study Cosmic Jets and Stellar Outflows
February 2019

Webb’s exquisite angular resolution will allow it to pick up the tiniest details.

High-Tech Heating Patches Created
January 2019

What if, instead of turning up the thermostat, you could warm up with high-tech, flexible patches sewn into your clothes – while significantly reducing your electric bill and carbon footprint?

Virginia Tech Innovation Campus Helps Attract Amazon
December 2018

Virginia Tech is making a historic commitment to build a revolutionary 1 million-square-foot, technology-focused campus in Alexandria…

Improving Smart-Window Energy Efficiency With Nanoparticles
November 2018

U.S. buildings leak an estimated 30 percent of their energy through inefficient windows, costing consumers an estimated $42 billion annually.

Biosensor Technology For Wearable Devices Invented
October 2018

Engineers have created a smart wristband with a wireless connection to smartphones that will enable a new wave of personal health…

Parker Solar Probe Launched On Historic Journey
September 2018

Hours before the rise of the very star it will study, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched from Florida Sunday, August 12th, to begin its journey to the Sun, where it will undertake a landmark mission.

Possible Treatment Target Identified For Alzheimer’s, Age-related Cognitive Decline
August 2018

Now research from a collaborative team of neuroscientists and engineers at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia is shedding light on the underlying mechanisms of brain aging, along with associated neurological diseases.

New and Improved Version of Phased Array Feed Developed
July 2018

To accelerate the pace of discovery and exploration of the cosmos, a multi-institution team of astronomers and engineers has developed a new and improved version of an unconventional radio-astronomy imaging system…

FIRST® Announces Landmark 2019 Season Theme
June 2018

FIRST ® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international K-12 not-for-profit organization founded by prolific inventor Dean Kamen, recently announced that more than 575,000 students will explore space across all four FIRST programs…

Researchers Study Upcycling Manure Into Paper Products
May 2018

It’s likely not the first thing you think of when you see elephant dung, but this material turns out to be an excellent source of cellulose for paper manufacturing…

‘Fog Harp’ Increases Collection Capacity For Clean Water
April 2018

Installing giant nets along hillsides and mountaintops to catch water out of thin air sounds more like folly than science.


Feature Article Archive
 
 
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