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Solutions 2012: Security

Electronics Defense

Personal files need protecting from identity theft. A nationwide network of health care records must guarantee privacy. A space satellite could stop working after being bombarded with radiation. And 21st-century defense demands 21st-century equipment, intelligence and protective gear. Vanderbilt University School of Engineering faculty, students and staff pursue understanding of, and ways to, combat these and other security problems.

It can be frustrating when the electronics in a laptop or cellphone fail, but imagine how much more critical it would be if components failed in a satellite orbiting in space or an Air Force fighter plane.

As electronic components get smaller and require less power to operate, they also become more vulnerable to radiation in the environment. Radiation effects can cause them to fail or degrade to such an extent that data is lost or systems crash. Engineers at the School of Engineering's Institute for Space and Defense Electronics research radiation effects and develop systems to prevent that from happening.

A radiation effects simulator developed by Professor of Electrical Engineering Robert Weller, Research Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Marcus Mendenhall and Professor of Electrical Engineering Robert Reed predicts the rate at which radiation effects cause failure.

The simulation software, called MRED (Monte Carlo Radiative Energy Deposition), looks at single particle radiation effects, which are more likely to damage newer, smaller components. Computations are done literally billions of times to come up with an aggregate effect. Once the rate at which these types of devices might experience failure is predicted, other research can be done to design a more resistant part or a system can be developed to replace components before failure.

components boards

Shown: Components boards assembled for radiation effects testing bed

MRED is now ready for evaluation in space. For the past five years, a grant from NASA has funded the resulting MRED platform and kept it up-to-date. MRED code is comprehensive, accounting for all forms of radiation interacting with materials. As new techniques are developed for simulating events, those calculations are factored into the program. Once the space tests conclude, ISDE researchers will be able to review failure modes and make sure they have been predicted correctly.

Eventually the software will be available for wide distribution, Weller says, and plans are to make it open source.

Directed by Ron Schrimpf, Orrin H. Ingram Professor of Engineering, ISDE is one of the most productive institutes at Vanderbilt, with 2011 research expenditures of $5.4 million and more than 50 academic papers published annually. It launched in 2003 with initial support from the U.S. Navy Strategic Systems Program and C.S. Draper Labs. ISDE also works with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Arnold Engineering Development Center, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Boeing/ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Naval Research Laboratory, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Department of Energy, BAE Systems and Cisco Systems.

ISDE researchers include both engineering practitioners and academic faculty, all of whom spend their waking hours solving complex engineering problems or teaching others how to solve them. more than 30 graduate students and undergraduates participate in ISDE projects. 

A more connected and advanced society can lead to the need for greater security measures. These research projects by engineers at Vanderbilt University School of Engineering seek to respond to that need.


Hacking as Deterrent

Smart, disciplined and skilled in computer programming, a team of engineering students tries to hack into a secure financial institution. They present a formidable threat. Good thing the bank they're trying to access is fictional and the hacking is a class project. Engineering undergraduates in a network security class taught by Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Computer Engineering Yuan Xue created a faux financial institution complete with a secure online banking system that other students attempted to hack. The project taught these future IT leaders how to defend systems against cyberattacks launched through common entry points such as browsers or access points like credit card entry. Since many security issues stem from initial coding problems, the students learned to comprehend the dangers in potential design flaws. It's important for students to have a security mindset, Xue says, and gain a complete understanding of how to build and maintain secure systems. The project was implemented with access to Trust Academy Online, an inter-institutional education portal, and DETER, a network security test bed sponsored by the University Consortium Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology (TRUST).

Part of Xue's teaching work in security is supported by a National Science Foundation TRUST award (CCF-0424422) and NSF SCDI grant (OCI-1127396).


Healthier Medical Data

The nation's most ambitious project to secure medical data and privacy and encourage use of electronic systems is employing tools and a structured approach to data security that Vanderbilt's Institute for Software Integrated Systems developed to protect sensitive data for the Department of Defense. ISIS director Janos Sztipanovits and leaders from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center are part of the multi-institutional Strategic Health IT Advanced Research Projects on Security (SHARPS) program charged with developing security and privacy policies and technology tools that support electronic use and exchange of health information. Sztipanovits, E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Engineering, works on developing systems that alleviate patient privacy concerns with a formal policy modeling. He also investigates ways to provide security when health data is accessed on devices such as cellphones or from provider to provider electronically.

ISIS director Janos Sztipanovits' SHARPS work is supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).


Hollywood Makes It Look So Easyadams with students

In fiction, robots easily understand tasks, execute commands from humans, navigate difficult terrain and communicate information back to their handlers. In real life, robots have limited ability to understand their environments, making it difficult for robots and humans to communicate in anything but the simplest situations. Clear communication is critical for deploying robots in complex situations such as search and rescue, disaster recovery, bomb disabling and remote navigation. Associate Professor of Computer Science and Computer Engineering Julie Adams and her Human-Machine Teaming Lab are developing human-robot interactive techniques to improve communication between man and machines. Current projects test how a remote deployed robot can understand what its human partner is doing and how it can provide information back to the human. Adams and her students are also identifying the tasks robots can do best in mass casualty or hazardous materials incidents where the circumstances are demanding and dangerous for humans. Applications might include military missions, homeland security situations, or securing areas before or after events.

Adams' research receives support from the National Science Foundation
(grants BCS-0826701, IIS-0519421 and IIS-0643100), Office of Naval Research
Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative Program (MURI) (award N000140710749), Air Force Office of Scientific Research (award FA9550-09-1-0108) and a contract from the U.S. Marine Corps Systems Command to M2 Technologies Inc.

Shown: Adams with students Eli Hooten and Sayan Sen testing a remote deployed robot


Battlefield Protection

With the change to asymmetric warfare and the increased use of IEDs, soldiers in the field need different and more compositeseffective armored vehicles for their protection. Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Prodyot "PK" Basu works on a multiyear Department of Defense project to develop and test a new composite material that provides improved blast and projectile impact resistance in protective armor panels. The short fiber-reinforced cementitious composite is being put through rigorous testing, including extensive experimental studies, computer-based modeling and simulation. Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Çağlar Oskay is also working on strengthening materials with an eye to military, defense and energy applications. His team researches the blast resistance of polyurea-coated composite structures to understand their failure mechanisms and determine the structural and material designs for improved blast protection.

Prodyot K. Basu's work is supported by a multiyear U.S. Department of Defense (US Army-ERDC) project. Caglar Oskay's composite work was supported by the U.S. Navy, Air Force Research Laboratory, Air Force Office of Scientific Research and NSF.

Shown: Polyurea-coated composites tested by Çağlar Oskay for the U.S. Navy

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Photos, from top: courtesy of MRED, John Russell, Joe Howell.