Members in the News: August 2010

Media outlets spotlight work of five members

3 August 2010

Five IEEE members made the news recently for their work in interesting technical areas.

IEEE Members Tadayoshi Kohno (a researcher at the University of Washington, in Seattle) and Steven Savage (a researcher at the University of California at San Diego) were featured in a 17 May interview on discussing their efforts to protect cars from hackers.

The pair found they could tamper with a car's electronic control system and do such mischief as lock the brakes, engine, and windows; turn on the radio, heat, air conditioning, and windshield wipers; and honk the horn.

Their work was presented in a paper in May at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy held in Oakland, Calif.

They were able to break into a car's electronic system by connecting a laptop to its onboard diagnostics port—usually located under the dashboard—and then wirelessly accessing that laptop from another computer. The laptop was preloaded with hacking software the two developed but are not releasing for security reasons. Although they say it's unlikely anyone will hack a car using their method anytime soon, Kohno and Savage say their goal is to get car makers to start thinking now about increasing security to forestall such attacks in the future. According to Savage, their paper, "Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile," considers this question: If someone were to gain access to the car, how resilient would the vehicle be?

"Today everyone is focusing on Web security and botnets," Kohno says, but with computers being built into cars, "we need to be proactively thinking about their security issues. One of our goals is to stay ahead of the bad guys."

IEEE Graduate Student Member Jarir Fadlullah and Fellow Mohsen Kavehrad discussed their work using reflected infrared light instead of radio waves to wirelessly transmit data faster in an 11 February article in Technology Review.

Fadlullah is a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, in University Park, where Kavehrad is a professor of electrical engineering at the university and director of its Center for Information and Communications Technology Research.

The two developed a system that sends data across a room by modulating a beam of infrared light focused on the ceiling and picking up the reflections with a photodetector. They say the system can support data rates well beyond 1 gigabit per second.

IR networks, which could provide faster, more secure communications than radio-frequency ones, would be especially suitable for hospitals, airplanes, and factories, where RF transmission can interfere with electronic equipment.

Such networks also could, for example, be used to wirelessly network home theaters. A system that transmits data at 1.6 GB per second could broadcast two separate high-definition TV channels across a room, a capacity that exceeds the bandwidth of any RF system.

Another potential benefit of optical wireless networks is that they offer less interference and greater security than RF networks. "While radio signals pass through walls and doors, light does not," Kavehrad says, "making it easier to reuse frequencies and more difficult to intercept transmissions."

A 10 February article in Scientific American featured IEEE Member Marc Raibert's work on a quadruped robot—reminiscent of the imperial robot walkers from the Star Wars movies—that can carry supplies for troops. Raibert is founder of Boston Dynamics, which is developing the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), an autonomous robot that can carry up to 181 kilograms of supplies for at least 32 kilometers without refueling. The goal is to relieve soldiers of the difficult task of lugging heavy supplies. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Marine Corps recently awarded the company a contract to deliver a prototype.

The LS3 will be a more advanced version of BigDog, which Boston Dynamics began developing in 2003 and has fine-tuned over the years. BigDog is a 75-kg robot that uses a computer vision system to follow a soldier wearing a special vest. It could also travel autonomously using GPS, but the coordinates of its destination have to be entered before its trek. BigDog can walk 19 km before refueling and carry 1.5 times its body weight on flat terrain. Unlike BigDog, LS3 will be able to travel autonomously with fewer restrictions, Raibert says.

Boston Dynamics has teamed up to build the prototype with several organizations, including defense contractor AAI Corp., NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and motion-control systems provider Woodward HRT.

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