ASU researchers collaborate internationally to secure power grid

The Israel-U.S. Initiative on Cybersecurity Research and Development for Energy is helping both countries hone energy grid cyberdefense capabilities

December 14, 2022

Yang Weng, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, is leading a cybersecurity collaboration that forms a bridge between American and Israeli organizations to better both countries’ capabilities to defend against cyberattacks on energy grid and water systems.

The Israel-U.S. Initiative on Cybersecurity Research and Development for Energy, or ICRDE, was born from a proposal Weng submitted two years ago to the Israel-United States Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, or the BIRD Foundation. The center was approved and formally began work in 2021. Locks and a translucent computer chip are superimposed on a background of solar panels Yang Weng, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, is leading a partnership between industry, government and educational institutions in the U.S. and Israel to better defend both countries’ power grids against cyberattacks. Graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU Download Full Image

ASU leads the American side of the coalition, with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev taking the lead on the Israeli side. The ICRDE also includes both commercial and educational partners in both countries, which the involved partners say face an increasing amount of cyberattacks.

“Our ICRDE collective efforts enable the design and development of next-generation cybersecurity solutions that would detect, identify and reject cyber threats, enhancing the reliability and resiliency of energy infrastructures,” says Weng, a faculty member in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Fulton Schools.

Projects to protect energy grid power

The collaboration’s research consists of five projects that fall under three main themes:

• Modeling and understanding physical processes in the energy grid’s computer systems while establishing a related knowledge database of cyberattack types.

• Developing advanced monitoring tools to detect cyberattacks.

• Designing tools to increase system resilience and ensure reliability in the event of an energy grid cyberattack.

With such large overarching themes, the researchers strategized smaller projects to achieve the coalition’s goals of conquering cybersecurity threats. Two projects fall under the first theme of database creation and cyberphysical interaction modeling. They aim to create technology that can understand the physical processes in an energy system and model them in a way that allows operators to understand when a cyberattack is taking place, such as when parameters deviate from normal, and to build a knowledge database of known energy grid cyberattack types.

The researchers will combine and organize datasets for modeling grid operation processes shared by industry partners and other data available to the public. This provides a yardstick of normal parameters against which to measure operation parameters to create the technology that can interpret energy system processes for the first project.

“This project’s purpose is rooted in the fact that current industrial control system, or ICS, detection technologies look at available data gathered from informational technology and operational systems, without the ability to inspect the processes themselves or the system state of operation,” Weng says.

For the second project, the collaborative is in the process of creating a cyberattack database, AttackDB, using data collected from energy grid incident reports. The researchers are also creating algorithms to detect differences between equipment malfunctions and cyberattacks.

“This knowledge database helps formulate viable attack hypotheses, thus enabling a rapid and automated response to threats,” Weng says.

A group of people involved in the ICRDE partnership poses for a photo

A group of those involved in the ICRDE partnership poses for a photo on ASU’s Tempe campus. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Cracking the code on cyberattack detection

The third project, which falls under the theme of creating advanced tools for detecting cyberattacks, looks to develop artificial-intelligence-based detection methods that can detect new types of cyberattacks not yet cataloged.

One of the key aspects of the project is to ensure that the machine learning models can be understood by the humans taking actual cybersecurity action. This will make sure people using the machine learning tools can distinguish actionable results from faulty AI-powered recommendations that use tampered data.

Currently, the research team is analyzing what AI-modeled cyberattacks look like when monitored through the ICS management software known as supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA. This gives the researchers a view into what it looks like when a cyberattack hits the computer system controlling energy grid functions. The researchers are also considering using deep reinforcement learning to further enhance cyberdefense capabilities and reduce the number of false positives detected as much as possible.

Lalitha Sankar, an associate professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, is one of the principal investigators for this project. She is using her decade-long experience in identifying cyberattacks that can affect grid operations and developing machine learning-based countermeasures to lead her team in creating robust AI tools to identify, localize and neutralize these attacks.

“One of the powerful properties of the electric grid is that data collected at sensors called phasor measurement units, or PMUs, are correlated with those at nearby PMUs,” Sankar says. “Therefore, to effectively fake a malfunction, a clever adversary has to change a sizeable number of those sensors’ measurements.”

The attack detection machine learning algorithm her team is developing uses the physics-based properties of sensor measurements to distinguish between true equipment malfunctions and those faked by cyberattacks. As part of the development process, Sankar’s team is working to teach the algorithm to recognize key patterns in the data, known as features, to determine when a cyberattack is occurring in real time while ensuring limited false positives.

Putting up cybersecurity shields and innovating new technology to control industrial processes

The fourth project falls under the theme of increasing resilience in the face of a cyberattack.

Building on the knowledge gained in the first project to understand cyberattack types, this project focuses on keeping an energy grid operating in the face of an ongoing attack. This would leave human operators and computer programs fighting a cyberbattle against attacks while still providing power to customers as best as possible.

The fifth and final project seeks to add better cybersecurity into the energy grid by designing an ICS from the ground up. This would reduce the need to heavily revise an existing ICS with new security measures.

The team has finished designing a prototype of the new ICS, which is being tested for its efficacy through simulations.

Learning opportunities for all

The project includes faculty and industry partners in both countries as well as students and postdoctoral researchers.

Due to the lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic, most of the collaboration between the American and Israeli researchers has been conducted over Zoom. However, there are hopes this will change soon with student researchers planning to travel between countries to collaborate in person.

Group of ASU researchers in a lab

The researchers involved in the Israel-U.S. Initiative on Cybersecurity Research and Development for Energy hope to meet in person more often as pandemic travel restrictions wane. Photo courtesy Yang Weng

Joel Mathias, an electrical engineering postdoctoral research scholar involved in simulating attacks that masquerade as system malfunctions, says the coalition gives him valuable research experience.

“This project gives me an opportunity to work closely with industry partners in developing solutions to critical problems in the power grid,” Mathias says. “The research gives me an understanding of the pressing challenges facing the utility industry, which is essential to my growth as a researcher working in the area of energy systems.”

He hopes that the research conducted through the coalition will help ensure the security of a more sustainable future energy grid. The ever-increasing number of distributed energy resources — such as solar technology, battery energy storage and electric vehicles — results in new challenges related to reliability, privacy and security. To coordinate electricity production and demand in a distributed setting, grids will rely more heavily on data for metrics on power production, demand for power and other associated parameters than ever before, leaving the grid more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

“The hope is that the research will help ensure that the smart grid, which is a more widely distributed, low-carbon and data-centric power grid, is fortified against such attacks,” Mathias says.

TJ Triolo

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Webb telescope PEARLS project unveils exquisite views of distant galaxies

December 14, 2022

For decades, the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes have provided us with spectacular images of galaxies. This all changed when the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launched in December 2021 and successfully completed commissioning during the first half of 2022. For astronomers, the universe, as we had seen it, is now revealed in a new way never imagined by the telescopes's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) instrument.  

The NIRCam is Webb's primary imager that covers the infrared wavelength range from 0.6 to 5 microns. NIRCam detects light from the earliest stars and galaxies in the process of formation, the population of stars in nearby galaxies, as well as young stars in the Milky Way and Kuiper Belt objects.  Image of a swath of sky measured by the James Webb Space Telescope's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). A swath of sky measuring 2% of the area covered by the full moon was imaged with Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) in eight filters, and with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Wide-Field Camera 3 (WFC3) in three filters that together span the 0.25 to 5 micron wavelength range. This image represents a portion of the full PEARLS field, which will be about four times larger. Image courtesy NASA, ESA, CSA, Rolf A. Jansen (ASU), Jake Summers (ASU), Rosalia O'Brien (ASU), Rogier Windhorst (ASU), Aaron Robotham (UWA), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Christopher Willmer (University of Arizona) and the JWST PEARLS Team; Image processing by Rolf A. Jansen (ASU) and Alyssa Pagan (STScI) Download Full Image

The Prime Extragalactic Areas for Reionization and Lensing Science, or PEARLS, project is the subject of a recent study published in Astronomical Journal by a team of researchers, including Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration Regents Professor Rogier Windhorst, Research Scientist Rolf Jansen, Associate Research Scientist Seth Cohen, Research Assistant Jake Summers and Graduate Associate Rosalia O'Brien, along with the contribution of many other researchers.  

For researchers, the PEARLS program's images of the earliest galaxies show the amount of gravitational lensing of objects in the background of massive clusters of galaxies, allowing the team to see some of these very distant objects. In one of these relatively deep fields (shown in the image above), the team has worked with stunning multicolor images to identify interacting galaxies with active nuclei. 

Windhorst and his team's data show evidence for giant black holes in their center where you can see the accretion disc — the stuff falling into the black hole, shining very brightly in the galaxy center. Plus, lots of galactic stars show up like drops on your car's windshields — like you're driving through intergalactic space. This colorful field is straight up from the ecliptic plane, the plane in which the Earth and the moon, and all the other planets, orbit around the sun.  

"For over two decades, I've worked with a large international team of scientists to prepare our Webb science program," Windhorst said. "Webb's images are truly phenomenal, really beyond my wildest dreams. They allow us to measure the number density of galaxies shining to very faint infrared limits and the total amount of light they produce. This light is much dimmer than the very dark infrared sky measured between those galaxies." 

MORE: View a zoomable version of the image above and learn more about PEARLS project

The first thing the team can see in these new images is that many galaxies that were next to or truly invisible to Hubble are bright in the images taken by Webb. These galaxies are so far away that the light emitted by stars has been stretched. 

The team focused on the North Ecliptic Pole time domain field with the Webb telescope — easily viewed due to its location in the sky. Windhorst and the team plan to observe it four times.

The first observations, consisting of two overlapping tiles, produced an image that shows objects as faint as the brightness of 10 fireflies at the distance of the moon (with the moon not there). The ultimate limit for Webb is one or two fireflies. The faintest reddest objects visible in the image are distant galaxies that go back to the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

Photo courtesy NASA, ESA, CSA, Rolf A. Jansen (ASU), Jake Summers (ASU), Rosalia O'Brien (ASU), Rogier Windhorst (ASU), Aaron Robotham (UWA), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Christopher Willmer (University of Arizona) and the JWST PEARLS Team; Image processing by Rolf A. Jansen (ASU) and Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

For most of Jansen's career, he's worked with cameras on the ground and in space, where you have a single instrument with a single camera that produces one image. Now scientists have an instrument that has not just one detector or one image coming out of it, but 10 simultaneously. For every exposure NIRCam takes, it gives 10 of these images. That's a massive amount of data, and the sheer volume can be overwhelming. 

To process that data and channel it through the analysis software of collaborators around the globe, Summers has been instrumental.

“The JWST images far exceed what we expected from my simulations prior to the first science observations,” Summers said. “Analyzing these JWST images, I was most surprised by their exquisite resolution.” 

Jansen’s primary interest is to figure out how galaxies like our own Milky Way came to be. And the way to do that is by looking far back in time at how galaxies came together, seeing how they evolved, effectively, and so tracing the path from the Big Bang to people like us.  

"I was blown away by the first PEARLS images," Jansen said. "Little did I know, when I selected this field near the North Ecliptic Pole, that it would yield such a treasure trove of distant galaxies, and that we would get direct clues about the processes by which galaxies assemble and grow — I can see streams, tails, shells and halos of stars in their outskirts, the leftovers of their building blocks." 

Third-year astrophysics graduate student O'Brien designed algorithms to measure faint light between the galaxies and stars that first catch our eye. 

"The diffuse light that I measured in between stars and galaxies has cosmological significance, encoding the history of the universe," O'Brien said. "I feel fortunate to start my career right now — JWST data is like nothing we have ever seen, and I'm excited about the opportunities and challenges it offers." 

“I expect that this field will be monitored throughout the JWST mission, to reveal objects that move, vary in brightness or briefly flare up, like distant exploding supernovae or accreting gas around black holes in active galaxies,” Jansen said.

Video by Steve Filmer/ASU Media Relations

Media Relations and Marketing Manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration