Hackers have been in the news lately, with their targets ranging from Minecraft players to an aide to a U.S. presidential contender. But few attacks could have larger and longer-lasting implications than an attack on electricity—the lifeblood of the modern economy—and the infrastructure that distributes it to homes and businesses. “One of our biggest challenges in the power industry is the threat cyberattacks could pose to power plants and grid operations,” explains Rob Garry, executive chief engineer for product cybersecurity at GE Power. “We are using the latest technologies with customers today, but in parallel we need to develop new, differentiated ways to detect and defend against cyber risks.”
Garry and his colleagues at GE Global Research (GRC) are taking the lifeblood metaphor further. The human body has an incredible power to fight pathogens or toxins in a coordinated response that often involves multiple organs. His team is studying the immune system’s ability to detect, defeat and deter threats and replicate its methods to protect industrial operations.
Few people have a better view of the problem. Consider that GE’s power generation equipment is producing about a third of the world’s electricity. It’s also one of the reasons why the Department of Energy recently gave funding to a team of scientists at the GRC to develop and demonstrate a next-generation cybersecurity technology to help protect critical power-generation assets. GE’s project is one of 12 awards totaling $34 million of DOE investment.
Lalit K. Mestha, the GRC controls principal engineer who is leading the project with the DOE, has a background in biomedical engineering—he studied how endocrine, respiratory, circulatory and other systems interact. This allows him to see cybersecurity in biological terms. “Whether it’s a complex machine or a person, each has very sophisticated systems to control its function and operation,” Mestha said. “How the human body fights off pathogens and other infections is a natural marvel. It automatically detects and triggers a self-defense mechanism to fight it. We’re trying to replicate similar kind of automatic detection and trigger functions through feedback within our power systems.”
When a flu virus enters the body, Mestha says, a big part of what enables the immune system to react is the body’s ability to sense that something is wrong. “In GE machines, we use sensors to help detect or forecast a potential cyber disruption,” he says. “It starts with detecting an anomaly or anomalies in a machine’s operation. But we want to take things one step further by using controls technology to automatically enable the machine to adjust its operation in response to an attack just like the human body does to pathogen attacks or infections.”
Mestha’s colleague Justin John, who runs the GRC’s Controls & Optimization Lab, is assembling a team for building digital replicas of machines and even plants, their “digital twins,” and give them an automated detection and self-defense capability. “The general idea is to use our digital model of plant operations to detect anomalies that could indicate a cyber disruption or attack is underway,” he said. “If one is detected, the control system we design in the plant using sensors and complex algorithms would automatically adjust its operation to reduce risk of harm to the asset and keep the system running.”