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ECE team conducts power grid research for a safer, less-hacked cyber world

JK WangSometimes, working backwards moves the future forward.

Back in June of 2017, Dr. JK Wang, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer at The Ohio State University, won a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue her research, "Defense against Measurement Attacks on the Power Grid."

Currently, the research, conducted by Wang and her Ph.D. student of three years, Christian Moya, is going well. Together, in the Electric Power Grid Research Group at Ohio State, they are finding mathematical solutions to create safer power grids. Their method: work backwards.  

“The purpose of this research is to enable us to defend potential cyber-attacks to the power grid,” Wang said. “We need to be smarter than the [hackers] and try to figure out what they would do.” 

Wang decided to approach the research from the perspective of the hacker and ask questions like, “How would they infiltrate the power grid?” and, “What needs to be improved to stop that breech?”

The grant not only helps sustain their research, but it allows the team to delve deeper into the interaction between the physical and cyber components of power grids, something Moya thoroughly enjoys.

August 2003 mass power blackout

“We study the entire system. We see how we can manipulate the measurements,” he said. “That’s the extension of this work, most people only study half of it, where they manipulate the control signals.”

Working mostly with test beds to simulate power grids, Moya said when they tweak their measurements, it can indicate if the power grid is hacked and any 

adjustments to make.

Moya said power grid security research is currently popular since the electronic world is growing; thus, creating larger grids with more points for hackers to attack.

Since there are so many ways an attack is performed, Moya said, they compute optimal attacks on the ones that require less work from the attackers point-of-view, since those are more common. 

“By studying what could happen, we can deploy a defense,” Moya said. “We can come up with something and put it up at the cyber defense or [make] suggestions to computer network people.”

Moya said 100 percent safety isn’t possible, but based off their findings, the duo is working at creating a safer cyber physical system for the future.

Wang said the research, which is “ahead of the curve,” still requires more testing. For the future, their goal is to create precise calculations to result in a safer cyber physical system.

“If our research can bring some insights into power utilities and great planners [who are] trying to improve the cyber infrastructures, [if they] consider security aspects, some of the algorithms and tools we’ve developed [could] help make the environment safer, and that would be great,” Wang said.

Story by ECE Public Relations Writer, Lydia Freudenberg