Collaborative project aims to protect agricultural technology from cyberattacks | Nebraska today

A research team from the University of Nebraska is working on a critical issue in agriculture and automated systems: cybersecurity for agricultural machinery and technology.

Santosh Pitla, an associate professor of advanced machine systems at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, brought together team members from the University of Nebraska and the University of Nebraska at the Omaha campuses in the fall 2020 as part of a project focusing on the security and hacking of autonomous agricultural vehicles that was supported by seed funding from the University of Nebraska Collaborative Initiative.

In addition to Pitla, the group included Mark Freyhof, a master’s student in agricultural engineering in Nebraska; George Grispos, assistant professor of cybersecurity at UN; and Cody Stolle, research assistant professor at Nebraska.

As this is a relatively new area of ​​research in farming systems, collaboration was essential. Pitla has been working with autonomous tractors and agricultural robotics since 2010. Although his primary focus is on making different levels of autonomy possible, he started working with Grispos once engineers started integrating the internet objects in machines.

“It was a really fruitful collaboration,” said Pitla. “Agricultural researchers and cybersecurity experts are both very important to conduct research in the field of cybersecurity (of agricultural technology). This allows us to be really proactive and find solutions or mitigation techniques.

This topic is becoming increasingly relevant as farmers try to produce more food with fewer resources, Grispos said in a Fast Company article he co-authored.

“The advent of precision agriculture comes at a time of significant upheaval in the global supply chain as the number of foreign and domestic hackers capable of exploiting this technology continues to grow,” he wrote in the article. ‘article.

Moreover, cyberattacks in the agricultural sector have already taken place. For example, in 2021, a grain storage cooperative in Iowa was targeted by a Russian-speaking group called BlackMatter, Reuters reported.

Grispos said integrating automated technologies into agricultural equipment has the potential to increase vulnerability to cyberattacks, even on small farms.

“While previous attacks have targeted large businesses and cooperatives and aimed to extort money from victims, individual farms could also be at risk,” he said.

Freyhof conducted research on agricultural cybersecurity for his master’s project, with Pitla as principal investigator and Grispos and Stolle as committee members.

Innovating in this project area was both “cool and challenging at the same time,” Freyhof said.

“There was little previous literature that investigated cybersecurity solutions for agricultural technologies and machinery – therefore a big part of the project was to link many cross-disciplinary topics,” he said. “It made for a challenging but fun project.”

To tackle the topic, Freyhof started by conducting a case study on cybersecurity vulnerabilities on agricultural equipment, using Flex-Ro as a test case. Flex-Ro is a remotely controllable and autonomous agricultural robot.

Rather than performing tests directly on the Flex-Ro, Freyhof decided to build a test rig to study specific systems on the Flex-Ro machine to avoid performing potentially damaging tests on the machine itself. same.

The test bed, named Security Test Bed for Agricultural Vehicles and Environments (SCOPE), was a useful tool for investigating cybersecurity vulnerabilities on Flex-Ro. It has great potential in future research on agricultural machinery cybersecurity, Pitla said.

The group published a research paper on ways SCOPE Could Be Used, which was selected as the best paper at the Midwestern United States Information Systems Association conference earlier this year.

“The reality is that agricultural machinery and other agricultural technologies have an increasing level of integrated digital solutions as they approach full autonomy,” he said. “Cybersecurity cannot be an afterthought because the world will depend on these machines and technologies in the future.”

Pitla agreed that potential vulnerabilities must be addressed to effectively advance the future of agriculture.

“You could have really smart equipment — an autonomous machine with lots of computers, lots of sensors, artificial intelligence — but if it has a weak cybersecurity link, all that intelligence is for naught,” he said. he declared.

“Providing safe and secure agricultural machinery is important for food and national security. IANR is well positioned to provide strategic leadership in the creation of cyber-secure agricultural production systems.

Freyhof graduated in August and will continue to work as an engineer for Precision Planting in Illinois. Pitla said the research team’s experience in developing SCOPE will contribute to projects to build safety testbeds for intelligent and autonomous systems throughout the food supply chain.

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