SRU students work with software engineer to secure robotic systems


Student working with a robot

Jacob McMahon, a Slippery Rock University senior computing major from Pittsburgh, controls a robotic arm using a robot operating system that he and a team of SRU students are helping secure as part of a collaborative project with a software engineer from Canonical.

Feb. 24, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The ubiquitous influx of artificial intelligence and internet-connected devices to our daily lives is the new normal. From doorbell cameras that help protect our homes to the robots that check inventory at the local grocery store, every day inches us closer to having our own WALL-E pick up after us.

But as technology advances, so does the trappings, like hacking. So how can we better protect the technology we count on now and will in the future? That's a question fit for Slippery Rock University students who are working with a software engineer to secure their robot operating systems. The joint venture is in response to those companies that are rushing to stay ahead of the demand for AI-driven products.

"Everybody's using these devices that rely on artificial intelligence, but the security of those devices is not at the top of a lot of people's minds as companies are rushing to get their products out into the market," said Sam Thangiah, SRU professor of computer science. "They're now saying, 'Hey, we need to start securing these devices because they can get hacked into.'"

To that end, Thangiah recently established a partnership between a team of SRU students and Sid Faber, a software engineer from Canonical, a computer software company headquartered in London but with hundreds of employees worldwide. Before joining Canonical last fall, Faber was chief information security officer at Federated Investors in Pittsburgh. He also serves on an advisory board to the SRU Computer Science Department.

Canonical produces Ubuntu, an open-source software operating system that runs "internet connected things," which includes robots that run on an open source robot operating system, known as ROS. Faber said that ROS has been around for more than a decade and has been used previously in an academic setting, but only recently has it been used commercially, thereby increasing the demand for security.

Austin Vroman


"It became the backbone of a lot of innovation you see in robotics, so we're working to put it on a secure platform," Faber said. "There are lot of standard security practices that traditionally haven't been applied to robots because they've been thought of more as pieces of furniture, almost something that's on the industrial side, more so than in the technological end of things."

Recognizing SRU's eagerness to expose students to the problems that they will be facing once they enter the workforce, Faber saw a mutual benefit to collaborating with Thangiah and his students to address ROS security.

"There's a lot going on in robotics right now and a lot of ways that we can address problems that need to be solved with robotics," Faber said. "It's really neat to open up the door to SRU students and provide an opportunity to help one another."

While Thangiah originally recruited only students from his Artificial Intelligence class, as many as 35 from throughout the computing major have expressed interest in working with Faber, who is visiting campus every other week during the spring semester.

"I can teach the academic part of it but to have somebody come in from the industry side and give that kind of exposure is a very big asset for our us and our students," Thangiah said. "The mere fact of knowing how to work with ROS in a practical setting is such a very big deal (for career development)."

SRU students are working with ROS using two robotic arms and at least four TurtleBots, which are robot kits that use open source software. The TurtleBots use AI to map floor plans, similar to how robots stock grocery store shelves, and, on a much larger scale, driverless cars and other autonomous vehicles navigate cities.

In addition to working with the software and operating the robots, the students are writing computer code that intercepts the messages from the ROS that give commands to the robot. The students are also encrypting messages to prevent someone intercepting messages meant for the robots or hacking into the ROS.

"I've always enjoyed taking things apart and trying to put them back together to figure out how they work," said Jacob McMahon, a senior computing major from Pittsburgh. "When we found out that we could work on robots and potentially hack into them, I said, 'I have got to work on this project.'

Sam Thangiah


Faber is planning to take an undetermined number of SRU students to present their findings by playing a "capture the flag" game at BSides Pittsburgh, a conference for information security professionals, June 26, at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. Variations of a capture the flag game are often played at cybersecurity competitions where a "red team," made up of offensive security professionals, or hackers, attempt to attack computer systems while a "blue team" of defensive security professionals maintain the internal network against those threats.

While capture the flag games can include pursuit of virtual "flags" by accessing sensitive data or taking over command of a drone, the SRU team will develop a game involving two robotic arms that will be reaching for an actual flag.

"We are planning to run the competition more like referees and the (security professionals attending the conference) are the ones actually trying to break in," Faber said. "This will help augment the security and have the students put their stamp on it. We want this to be repeatable, so we're starting with the experts at BSides, which has a capture the flag event every year."

Robotics has gained the attention of more information security professionals, especially with companies using ROS. This means that college graduates with experience using ROS are more attractive to employers, including Pittsburgh-based Bossa Nova, which runs its inventory control robots on ROS in order to help their clients - like retail giant Walmart - better compete with online companies such as Amazon.

"There's no universal operating system for robotics, but as ROS continues to gain more users, it's going to take off and a lot of companies are going to be using it," said Austin Vroman, a senior dual computing and physics major from Slippery Rock. "Knowing how to use them and secure them will make me more employable. But what motivates me most is that I'm just really interested in robots and robotics and this is a great opportunity."

For more information about the computer science program at SRU, click here.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |