North Carolina researchers to demonstrate distributed computing as a defense against power grid cyber attacks

logoA nationwide team that includes researchers from the Renaissance Computing Institute at UNC Chapel Hill (RENCI) and North Carolina State University will demonstrate how innovative cyber-physical systems can be used to prevent cyber attacks on power grids as part of the SmartAmerica Challenge and Expo, June 11 in Washington, D.C.

The event will showcase how cyber-physical systems and the “Internet of Things” can boost American competitiveness, create new business opportunities and jobs, and improve quality of life. Twenty-four teams, including the NC State-RENCI team, will show the potential benefits of integrated systems of cyber and physical technologies: for example, vehicles that can make their own way through a battlefield to pick up the wounded, or disaster response systems that can coordinate human first responders, robots, and dogs.

Aranya Chakrabortty, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State, leads a major technical development task force for the team that also includes RENCI Networking Research Engineer Yufeng Xin. Researchers from Iowa State University, MITRE Corporation, National Instruments, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, Scitor Corporation, and the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute also are part of the team.

Their demonstration will address some key issues for cyber-security of the U.S. power grid. Typically, any grid is divided into sections that cover everything from single municipal areas to entire states. A single control center monitors the behavior of each section of the grid, making sure it is operating smoothly and making adjustments whenever necessary to keep the grid up and stable. When a control center stops functioning, it can no longer monitor and maintain its piece of the grid, and that can lead to even more severe problems with the system.

The Smart Energy Cyber-Physical Systems team wants to eliminate the vulnerability of power systems that results from having single control centers for each section of the grid. Their idea is to create a distributed computing system that would disseminate the grid’s monitoring and control functions across many connected virtual computers—a virtual cloud computing network that maps to the power grid.

In this kind of distributed monitoring system, if one element of the control system is compromised by a cyber attack, weather damage, or for any other reason, other virtual computers could step in and coordinate the effort to keep the grid operational and monitoring activity in all sections.

The goal, says Xin, is to use the most advanced technologies in distributed computing and networking to make the grid more resilient to both cyber and physical attacks.

The work is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Cyber-Physical Systems Program under grant ECCS 1329780.

In addition to the smart technology team presentations, the SmartAmerica event will include a keynote address by Todd Park, U.S. chief technology officer and assistant to the president; a talk by Dan Tangherlini, administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration; and demonstrations.

The event is free and open to all, but registration is required. Visit the SmartAmerica Challenge website for registration information.

For more on the Smart Energy Cyber-Physical Systems team, see this NC State story.