May 4, 2017 | By David

The potential dangers of robotics technology in industry were recently demonstrated with the aid of a robotic arm intended to design a 3D printed rotor for a drone. The robotic arm was successfully hacked and controlled remotely by a group of researchers from Trend Micro, highlighting the ease with which industrial processes can be reprogrammed and the potentially harmful consequences of implementing automated technology like 3D printing and robotics.

Pioneering technology company ABB’s IRB140 industrial robot can be used to draw straight lines as part of a 3D design process. This is a relatively simple task, but more complex and crucial operations are also carried out by similar pre-programmed robots in a range of industrial sectors on a daily basis. The team of researchers wanted to show how easy it could be for this kind of robotics technology to be hacked and for its functioning to be disrupted or interfered with.

The scenario they were testing was one where the robot was designing a hypothetical 3D printed drone rotor. They were able to remotely change the configuration of the robotic arm and alter the drawing of straight lines so they were drawn a couple of millimeters off. This kind of microdefect may seem insignificant, but on a large industrial scale it could have a catastrophic effect, and this was particularly troubling as the robot’s instructions were not altered at all. Exploiting the configuration code like this is a much more difficult hack to detect.

In an interview with Forbes magazine, Mark Nunnikhoven, vice president of cloud research at Trend Micro, said: "It doesn't sound like much until you remember what the robot is trying to do with this straight line. So if it's on a car manufacturing line, it's trying to do a weld in a straight line, joining two pieces of material together. If it's in pharmaceuticals, it's doing similar things, trying to align different parts for medical devices… a 2 mm variance in what should be a straight line could have catastrophic effects downstream.’’

While robotics and 3D printing technology allow for an incredibly cost-effective automation of manufacturing processes, the absence of human input is now allowing the possibility of outside interference in these processes. Another worrying cyber attack demonstrated by the Trend Micro researchers showed the possibility of changing the status information displayed on an ABB robot, to trick the owner into believing it was in "safe mode" whilst it was actively being controlled by a hacker. The team was also able to highlight security weaknesses in robots from other companies. Seven different vulnerabilities of varying magnitude were exposed in products by Belden, Digi, Moxa, NetModule, and Westermo.

The Trend Micro team is encouraging these companies to improve their security in order to better prevent hacking of their robotics technology. ABB has already released a patch that will stop the demonstrated attacks from occurring in future, and it emphasized the importance of using a secure network to prevent remote access. Security concerns are growing as more and more robotic technology products and 3D printers are connected to the Internet of Things. Trend Micro’s research showed that more than 80,000 industrial routers used to control robots were exposed and open to attacks. Furthermore, the security consultancy firm IOActive recently discovered more than 50 vulnerabilities that were present across a range of robots used in industry as well as in the home.

According to Trend Micro, a quadcopter that had a 3D printed drone rotor once fell from the sky as a direct result of a microdefect in its robotics engineering setup, and we have previously reported on the ease with which this type of 3D printing manufacturing process can be hacked. With the increased implementation of robotics and automated 3D printing technology in sectors like aerospace and healthcare, security risks are something that manufacturers should take very seriously, as they have the potential not just to be hugely expensive, but also life-threatening.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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