Utilising the Benefits of Industrial Robots Securely

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Jalal Bouhdada

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Jalal Bouhdada, Founder & CEO at Applied Risk, discusses the rise of industrial robotics and how we can increase the cyber resilience of production environments in the future.

It is increasingly likely that a factory worker today will find themselves employed as part of a diverse workforce, one which includes industrial robots. That is because the industry is rapidly gaining popularity, so much so that it is expected that 4 million commercial robots will be installed in over 50,000 warehouses by 2025; 4,000 of those were deployed in 2018 alone. As time goes on, there’s every likelihood that more workplace colleagues will be of the robotic kind.

This is of course having a positive impact in industrial environments. Robots are becoming an integral part of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), helping to boost productivity, streamline operations and improve physical safety. Falling costs and common programming platforms are also helping to accelerate the proliferation of robots in all sectors. But have manufacturers placed enough emphasis on the cybersecurity of their new workforce?

The impact of industrial robotics
The use of robots in industrial environments isn’t actually new. For almost 50 years they’ve been improving the way that we manufacture products and deal with risk in hazardous environments. But we have now reached an important inflection point, and their increased usage comes with some important considerations.

Up until now, much of the attention has been the physical safety of robots in the workplace, especially when they share space with human co-workers. For example, a new standard is set to be published this year governing when robots should shut down (if approached by a human, for example) and when they are allowed to restart their process. Unfortunately, the cyber risk has not had the same level of attention and, although awareness is growing, there is still much work to be done.

The increased risk that autonomous production brings
It may be a relief to learn that currently, there have been no known cyberattacks on industrial robots that have hit the headlines. But the truth, and part of the reason, is that robots haven’t been an attractive target for hackers. There have only been small numbers in operation and it’s expensive to get hold of examples in order to develop attacks, meaning it hasn’t been worth an attacker’s effort.

But as costs decrease and the number of robots in use continues to rise, they are becoming a more tempting target. Researchers have repeatedly shown proof of concept (POC) attacks in which they have been able to take over well-known robots and infect them with ransomware. The potential for physical harm, or at the very least significant business disruption, is troubling.

How to ensure cybersecurity
Robotics have proven to be incredibly effective in industrial environments, so security concerns shouldn’t slow the market’s growth. However, as with any other connected technology, there are well known and proven processes that can help to improve the state of cybersecurity. Effective planning is one of the most important threat mitigation tools: the principles of “secure by design” mean ensuring security is addressed from the early stages of the design phase and continue as a key consideration at every stage of the development process to ensure a cyber resilient end product.

Potential purchasers of industrial robotics should also define clear security requirements during the procurement process and conduct a thorough risk assessment of any new robots that they look to deploy. There are experts in the field that can conduct independent tests to ensure that robots and systems are appropriately hardened against attack before they are integrated, and that staff are appropriately trained to understand the risks that could be introduced into the environment through their behaviour.

Vendors, meanwhile, should adopt the “secure development lifecycle” best practices, and ensure they are providing end users with cyber resilient products to be implemented in their business-critical production environments. Cybersecurity must be a priority when designing and building robots, and clear roadmaps for managing upgrades and patches should be well documented and regularly updated.

Industrial robots do promise to improve manufacturing productivity, streamline operations and reduce risk for many organisations. But those benefits won’t be achieved for long if they are not deployed with cybersecurity at their core.

About the author: Jalal Bouhdada is the Founder and Principal ICS Security Consultant at Applied Risk.

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