All posts by Michelle Hampson

Crowdsourcing Package Deliveries Using Taxis

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/computing/networks/proposed-crowdsourcing-platform-uses-taxis-to-deliver-packages

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For urban areas where the demand for package delivery is only increasing, a group of researchers is proposing an intriguing solution: a crowdsourcing platform that uses taxis to deliver packages. In a study published 29 April in IEEE Transactions on Big Data, they show that such an approach could be used to deliver 9,500 packages on time per day in a city the size of New York.

Their platform, called CrowdExpress, allows a customer to set a deadline by which they want a package delivered. Taxis, which are already traveling in diverse trajectories across urban areas with passengers, are then crowdsourced to deliver the packages. Taxi drivers would be responsible for picking up and dropping off the packages, but only before and after dropping off their passengers, which avoids any inconvenience to passengers.

Chao Chen, a researcher at Chongqing University who was involved in the study, says this proposed approach offers several advantages. “For customers, packages can be delivered more economically, but [also] more speedily,” he says. “For taxi drivers, more money can be earned when taking passengers to their destinations, with only a small additional effort.”

Since the average taxi ride tends to be only a few kilometers, Chen’s group acknowledges that more than one taxi may be required to deliver a package. Therefore, with their approach, they envision a network of relay stations, where packages are collected, temporarily stored, and transferred.

In developing CrowdExpress, they first used historical taxi GPS trajectory data to figure out where to place the nodes on the package transport network. Next, they developed an online scheduling algorithm to coordinate package deliveries using real-time requests for taxis. The algorithm calculates the probability that a package will be delivered on time using a taxi that is currently available, or taxis that are likely to be available in the near future. In this way, the algorithm prioritizes human pick-ups and drop-offs while still meeting package delivery deadlines set by customers.

In their study, Chen and his colleagues evaluated the platform using the real-world taxi data generated during a single month by over 19,000 taxis in New York City. The results show that this technique could be used to ferry up to 20,000 packages a day—but with a deadline success rate of 40 percent at that volume. If CrowdExpress were used to transport 9,500 packages a day across the Big Apple, the success rate would reach 94 percent.

“We plan to commercialize CrowdExpress, but there are still many practical issues to be addressed before truly realizing the system,” Chen admits. “The maintenance cost and the potential package loss or damage at the package stations is one example,” Chen says.

“One promising solution to address the issue is to install unmanned and automatic smart boxes at the stations. In this way, packages can be safely stored and drivers are required to enter a one-time password to get them.”

Analysis of COVID-19 Tweets Reveals Who Uses Racially Charged Language

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/telecom/internet/analysis-tweets-related-covid19-racially-charged-language

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As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread around the globe, it was followed by an increase in media coverage of racist attacks. Some have argued that the use of racially charged language to describe the novel coronavirus, including terms such as the “Chinese flu” or “Chinese virus,” may have played a role in these attacks.

In a recent study, published 21 May in IEEE Transactions on Big Data, researchers analyzed Twitter data to better understand which users are more likely to use racially charged versus neutral terms during the pandemic. In a second study, the group analyzed the general language used by these two groups of Twitter users, shedding light on their priorities and emotional states.

PAL Robotics Customizable Bots Could Be the Next Frontline Workers

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/news-from-around-ieee/the-institute/ieee-member-news/pal-robotics-customizable-bots-could-be-the-next-frontline-workers

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THE INSTITUTE Scientists around the world are pushing hard to develop new technologies to support frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. While much of this tech includes assistive tools to support frontline workers with their tasks, some researchers have their eye on ways to reduce the need for these employees to conduct high-risk tasks—by giving the jobs to robots.

One of those researchers is IEEE Member Francesco Ferro, CEO of PAL Robotics. He contacted The Institute to let us know about the company’s arsenal of customizable robots.

Based in Barcelona, the company’s base models are designed for a variety of tasks, including socializing with people and transporting items. PAL Robotics has been exploring ways to use its existing base models—or build upon them—to aid in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort has involved a lot of collaboration and adaptation in a short amount of time.

“The idea is to move fast and save lives,” Ferro says. “That is the all-important part.”

One model that could prove useful during the pandemic is Artificial Robot Intelligence (ARI), a mobile and social robot that can interact with people and ask them questions. PAL Robotics was already collaborating with seven other organizations—including ERM Automatismes Industriels, Heriot-Watt University, and the University of Trento—as part of a project called SPRING, to modify ARI for complex dialogue and interactions with people.

But as the pandemic began, the project’s partners agreed to broaden the focus to make it applicable in the fight against the virus.

With the right software, he says, ARI will be able to ask COVID-19 patients questions related to their symptoms, reducing how often healthcare workers must come into close contact with patients. Additional modifications to ARI will allow it to establish connections with e-health platforms and process patients’ medical data, Ferro says. The social robot could also be fitted with a thermal infrared camera to measure a person’s temperature.

“The goal is for the robot to be able to participate in different user cases in a hospital environment, such as welcoming newcomers to the waiting room, helping with check-in forms, providing information about the consultation agenda, acting as a guide to appointments, and also offering entertainment,” Ferro says. ARI will be able to give patients a more personalized experience, in part thanks to the sociability of the robot and its features such as voice recognition, deep learning, and ability to read emotions.

“Another particular advantage of ARI is that the robot can be teleoperated to enable caregivers to see, interact, and support patients in real time without physical interaction, which is very important in this pandemic period,” Ferro says.

PAL Robotics is also exploring ways to modify its mobile robot model, TIAGo Base (TIAGo stands for take it and go), to help out during the pandemic, Ferro says. A variety of add-ons can be incorporated into this bot, such as storage compartments to transport food and medications within hospitals.

The company is also planning to incorporate a UV light to kill viruses and bacteria. This adapted model, dubbed TIAGo Disinfection, could be sent into empty hospital rooms to systemically zap surfaces with the UV light, killing any lingering germs.  PAL Robotics is currently collaborating with a UV light manufacturer to create the new robotic appendage. Like ARI, TIAGo Disinfection could be equipped with an infrared camera to record patients’ temperatures.

The open-source framework, Robotics Operating System, is being used to program the robots. This allows the project’s collaborators and clients to easily incorporate their own software to customize the robot for different applications.

Ferro says the lockdown in Spain temporarily affected the manufacturing of the robots but the real bottleneck for getting ARI and the other bots on the front lines is certification from the EU Commission for their use in a healthcare setting, which is still pending.

“We have done safety assessments where we evaluate different hazardous situations—such as unexpected movement of the robot, electrical hazards related to charging, and mechanical hazards related to coupling with the robot joints—by indicating the probability of it happening and severity of the situation,” Ferro says.

As part of the next stage of the SPRING Project, ARI will undergo testing with human volunteers at some pilot tests sites, including the Broca Hospital in Paris.

“We are now trying to complete the pilot tests and are trying to develop solutions faster in an agile way in order to fulfill the real needs [brought on by the pandemic],” Ferro says. “We are pushing very hard for this.”

Interactive e-Learning Platform Boosts Performance of New Musicians

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/computing/software/interactive-elearning-platform-boosts-performance-of-new-musicians

While many budding musicians find joy in playing their instruments, not all are as enthusiastic to learn about music theory or the nuances of sound. To make lessons more engaging for music students, a group of researchers in Slovenia have created a new e-learning platform called Troubadour.

The platform can be adapted to different music curriculums and includes gaming features to support student engagement. A controlled study, published 15 May in IEEE Access, shows that Troubadour is effective at boosting the exam performance of first-year music students.

Matevž Pesek, a researcher at University of Ljubljana who helped build the platform, began playing the accordion at age eight, and has since taken up the keyboard, guitar, and Hammond organ. When he first started playing music—like many children and older beginners—he struggled with some aspects of the learning curve.

“I never completely liked the fact I needed to practice to become more proficient. Moreover, I perceived music theory as a separate problem, completely unconnected to the instrument practice,” he says. “It was only later in my adulthood when I somehow became aware of the importance of the music theory and its connection to the instrument playing.”

Pesek saw an opportunity to create Troubadour. While several online music learning platforms exist, he points out that these are not adaptable to school curriculums and many are only available in English.

“The lack of flexibility–where teachers cannot adjust the exercises according to their curriculum–and the language barrier motivated us to develop a solution for the Slovenian students,” says Pesek. “We have also made the platform’s source code publicly available for other interested individuals and communities; they can expand the platform’s applications, translate the platform to their native language, and also help us further develop the platform.”

With Troubadour, teachers select what features they want incorporated into the music exercise, and an algorithm automatically generates sound sequences to support the exercise. Students then access the Web-based platform to complete the interval diction exercises. In these exercises, melodic sequences are played and, upon recognizing the sequences, students record their answer. To make the overall exercises more engaging for students, the researchers added gaming features such as badges and a scoreboard that allows students to see where they rank against their peers.

In their study, Pesek and his colleagues evaluated the effectiveness of Troubadour as a study tool for students enrolled in a music theory course at the Conservatory of Music and Ballet Ljubljana. The data they captured included platform use and exam scores, as well as student and teacher feedback through surveys.

The results showed that, while there was a minimal benefit for second-year music students, first-year students who used Troubadour achieved an average exam score that was 9.2 percent better than those who didn’t. The teachers attributed this performance increase to better student engagement and the fact that the level of music experience and proficiency among first-year students varies.

The researchers have since expanded upon Troubadour to include rhythmic diction exercises, and are now working on harmonic exercises. “We also plan on including several different tools to aid the in-platform communication between teachers and students, and plan to support online exams within the platform,” says Pesek.

Coronavirus Pandemic Upends Research Plans

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/the-smarter-grid/coronavirus-pandemic-upends-research-plans

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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every facet of life, including scientific research carried out at companies and universities around the world.

As biomedical researchers scramble to find a treatment or vaccine, other scientists and engineers try to continue their own work in the midst of a pandemic. In some cases, this means writing a paper or grant from home rather than at the office. But in many others, the disruption is more pronounced.

Most academic, government, and corporate labs in the United States have scaled back operations or closed temporarily to comply with stay-at-home orders. The impacts of these changes can vary greatly from one field to the next, depending on the nature of the work.

John Verboncoeur, a director of IEEE and associate dean for research and graduate studies at Michigan State University, says, “Our surveys indicate that theoretical research teams—my own included—are operating at around 80 to 90 percent efficiency, with the main challenge being the ability to explain complicated concepts without our traditional ‘waving hands about’ and interactive work at the white- or blackboard.”

For experimentalists, the pandemic is more disruptive, although some experiments may be completed from home. “The early focus [for experimentalists] was on catching up on the literature, completing manuscripts, analyzing existing data, and so on, which led to a productivity of 50 percent or so,” says Verboncoeur. “However, much of that is coming to completion, and we are seeing productivity drop as the activities narrow down to designing upcoming experiments and protocols.”

Engineers in many fields are looking for new ways to remain innovative and productive. Take, for example, those in the green energy sector. While some climate and energy research may continue from home, other projects are more difficult or impossible to complete remotely.

Sally Benson’s lab at Stanford University does a mix of theory, modeling, and experiments to support the transition to a low-carbon future, including studies related to carbon capture and storage. While the theory and modeling aspects of this research are easy enough to continue, the experimental work involves analyzing rock samples at the extreme temperatures and pressures found in underground reservoirs—tests that aren’t feasible to carry out at home.

Despite this limitation, Benson’s group is still finding ways to continue with some aspects of their experimental work. “The good news is that as experimentalists, we tend to collect way, way more data than we can assimilate,” she says. “We generate these immensely rich data sets, where there’s plenty more we can mine out of those data sets.”

The group is now returning to its old data sets and reanalyzing the data to answer new, unexplored questions, in part by applying machine learning. By doing so, the researchers have uncovered previously unknown ways that carbon dioxide interacts with rock. Benson acknowledges, however, that this reuse of old experimental data can’t go on forever.

Further up the coast, at the University of Washington, Brian Johnson is leading two projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Both are designed to facilitate a major shift from electromechanical power grids to grids based on power-electronics systems that will better support renewable energy.

One project involves the design of controllers for these new power grids. The effort launched in April just as the pandemic was taking hold in the United States, but the team was able to get the research started by focusing on pen-and-paper designs and software simulations.

However, the pandemic may prove more problematic for Johnson’s second endeavor. It involves the design of a new breed of high-efficiency power electronics that converts DC power from solar cells into grid-compatible AC power. “For that project, we have a heavy set of milestones coming up in the summer months to actually demonstrate the hardware,” says Johnson. “If we can’t do [tests] in the summer, we’re going to have to start coming up with some contingency plans. Since these experiments necessitate a power lab with specialized equipment, they cannot be done in our homes.”

While the pandemic affects each research project to varying degrees, its overall impact on the broader shift toward green tech—and on the state of engineering research more generally—is still unclear.

Benson says she’s slightly concerned that the pandemic may cause some researchers to shift their focus from climate change to medicine. “To me, the COVID-19 pandemic is sort of a multiyear challenge and a short-term nightmare,” she says. “If we’re not careful, climate change will be a decadal-scale nightmare. So this work needs all of the attention it can get.”

Johnson is less concerned that the pandemic will interfere with the advancement of green tech, saying: “I think that energy is such an integral part of modern life itself and infrastructure that I don’t perceive [the COVID-19 pandemic] fundamentally altering the fact that we all need energy, and cheap energy.”

This article appears in the June 2020 print issue as “COVID-19 Disrupts Research Plans.”

Sneakier and More Sophisticated Malware Is On the Loose

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/telecom/security/analysis-shows-malware-evolving-encrypted-sophisticated

A new study analyzing more than a million samples of Android malware illustrates how malicious apps have evolved over time. The results, published 30 March in IEEE Transactions on Dependable and Secure Computing, show that malware coding is becoming more cleverly hidden, or obfuscated.

“Malware in Androids is still a huge issue, despite the abundance of research,” says Guillermo Suarez-Tangil, a researcher at King’s College London who co-led the study. “A central challenge is dealing with malware that is repackaged.”

Can Plasma Destroy Coronavirus in HVAC Systems?

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/green-tech/buildings/plasma-destroy-coronavirus-air-hvac-systems

Herek Clack gets an email notification each time someone calls his office phone at Michigan State University. He says that while working from home during the pandemic, his office phone has been ringing “continuously.” Meanwhile, online, one of his studies is trending as the most read paper on Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, despite being published more than a year ago.

Part of Clack’s research is focused on using non-thermal plasma as a means to inactivate airborne viruses. His team demonstrated this technique against MS2, a virus that infects bacteria and is known to be particularly difficult to inactivate. In a second study, Clack proved that non-thermal plasma could also inactivate the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSv), which affects pigs. Now, many curious people are reaching out to Clack with the same question in mind: could non-thermal plasma inactivate the novel coronavirus, SARS-COV-2?

Plasma is a state of matter whereby high enough energy levels cause electrons to be knocked out of their orbits and enter a free state. Unsurprisingly, these radical electrons can be damaging to DNA and RNA. The ability for non-thermal plasma to disrupt the infectiousness of a virus was first demonstrated by a group of Chinese researchers in 2015, and Clack’s team has since been exploring its potential use to deactivate viruses in the agricultural setting. Their idea is to incorporate non-thermal plasma devices into the ventilation systems of pig farms, to limit the spread of infectious diseases like PRRSv.

Clack says the exact mechanism by which the plasma deactivates these viruses is still being explored.  “But the thinking is that it interrupts the ability for the virus to dock with its host cell,” he says. “Our studies show that the number of infectious virus dropped more than two log, so more than 99 percent, if you compare before and after plasma treatment.”

While the ability of both MS2 and PRRSv to infect cells was substantially reduced in Clack’s studies, the overall amount of viral genetic material was hardly affected. This suggests that non-thermal plasma, at just the right intensity, may be altering the proteins on the surface of the viruses, which the viruses use to enter its host cell. Without those proteins intact, the virus can no longer infect its host cell.

As it became increasingly clear that the novel coronavirus is airborne, and it was detected in the air vents of hospitals, more people have reached out to inquire about the applicability of Clack’s research to SARS-COV-2. Could non-thermal plasma devices inside air ventilation systems, for example in hospitals, help reduce the spread of the virus? Exploring this possibility is intriguing, but would be riddled with many hurdles.

“COVID-19 is… highly contagious, with no innate population immunity, potentially deadly health outcomes, and no vaccine in sightso gaining approval to work with it is not a mundane undertaking,” Clack emphasizes. It would require a carefully regulated study in a Level 3 biosafety lab, which he notes is expensive and difficult to gain clearance for.

Nevertheless, the possibility of pursuing such a study has crossed his mind.

The major question, Clack notes, is where in the queue of many scientists, with many COVID-19-related research questions, does this potential study fall? Research to find a vaccine is clearly a priority—but may also take some time to develop and implement. In the meantime, Clark points out that our only protection against the virus is social distancing, face covering and self quarantine. “And so that’s where our technology really could have the most impactby providing protection where the vaccines aren’t yet ready,” he says.

Despite the need for more ways to combat SARS-COV-2, the challenges of using non-thermal plasma in the context of the current pandemic may prove too cumbersome. The high queue of COVID-19 research proposals, the need for FDA approval of non-thermal plasma devices in human settings, and limited ways to produce such devices for air ventilation systems remain major short-term barriers.

Group Aims to Test the Safety of DIY Medical Supplies for COVID-19

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/biomedical/devices/group-aims-to-test-the-safety-of-diy-medical-supplies-for-covid19

As workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic struggle to find adequate medical supplies and protective gear, innovators from around the world have rallied to create new designs from readily available materials. These include 3D-printed face shields and nasal swabs, plus ventilator machines and an open-source oxygen concentrator.

While the response from these well-intentioned innovators is inspiring, there remains some issues around the use these new designs—one in particular being that very few were designed to meet minimum safety standards or vetted at an early enough stage to help these pop-up equipment manufacturers make the necessary adjustments.

One group, called Collaborating to Address Shortages of Medical Supplies (CASMS), has formed to address the issue. Mike Dempsey, Director of the CIMIT Accelerator Program, helped create the group after his own experience of designing a face shield for a hospital. Upon coming up with the design, it became evident that the hospital may not be able to use the face shields without assurance that basic standards were met.

“So that was very frustrating,” say Dempsey. “Because we had this supply of emergency shields and we had a solution, but we can’t get it into the hands of the caregivers.

“But then I realized that it’s [necessary] that the things that do get into the hands of caregivers are safe. You don’t want sub-quality stuff to be used. So that was the genesis of CASMS. We had to figure out a way to have both speed and safety.”

Dempsey was already a member of a consortium for innovative medicine, called CIMIT, which comprises experts at the intersection of medicine, academia, and business. From CIMIT, the CASMS working group was formed. The team looks at existing specifications and testing protocols for the type of medical supply or device at hand—say, a face shield. Existing specifications for a face shield may be very detailed and include features that are not applicable to the COVID-19 crisis, but are related to different tasks, such as welding for example. The CASMS group pares down these specifications to make them applicable to the pandemic.  

Adjusting the specifications also helps by eliminating the need for expensive or specialized equipment. The standard test rig for a face shield typically analyzes multiple features of the shield; in contrast, CASMS may suggest a simpler test fixture that only tests the features important to healthcare workers. “It tests the same thing, but in a much simpler way,” Dempsey explains.

With many existing designs already out there and CASMS in action, Dempsey is emphasizing the need for people to shift the focus from designing to testing. “I will say that it has been a very positive experience because—since the word has gotten out that we’re doing this—so many people have reached out and said, ‘I want to help,’ When we say things like we really need more testers and not more people making new designs, everyone is willing to step up and do that,” he says.

While the pandemic will remain the focus of this initiative in the immediate future, Dempsey has some ideas on how CASMS can continue in the long-term. He has previously worked in impoverished countries and those with middling economies—exactly the types that tend to have medical supply shortages.

“We are interested in keeping the CASMS website going after we’ve conquered COVID, to help low- and middle-income countries deal with their persistent equipment shortages. They are lacking medical equipment all of the time, and if there can be minimally viable specs, we think that could help with the development of newer, lower cost things, and hence safety of things that are produced,” he says.

Drones Use Radio Waves to Recharge Sensors While in Flight

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/sensors/remote-sensing/uavs-prove-usefuldelivering-remote-power-charging-services

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Remote sensors play a valuable role in collecting data—but recharging these devices while they are scattered over vast and isolated areas can be tedious. A new system is designed to make the charging process easier by using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to deliver power using radio waves during a flyby. A specialized antenna on the sensor harvests the signals and converts them into electricity. The design is described in a study published 23 March in IEEE Sensors Letters.

MicroLEDs Transmit Whopping Amounts of Data

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/telecom/wireless/micro-led-lights-transmit-whopping-amounts-data

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Modern wireless communications most often occur at radio frequencies invisible to the human eye—but that isn’t stopping some scientists from eyeing visible light as a means to transmit data. In a recent advance, researchers in the United Kingdom succeeded in transmitting 1.61 Gbps of data across 20 meters using microLEDs. Their work was published 18 March in IEEE Photonics Technology Letters.

Mirror Arrays Make Augmented Reality More Realistic

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/sensors/imagers/mirrors-augmented-reality-more-realistic

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In the world of augmented reality (AR), real and virtual images are combined to create immersive environments for users. While the technology is advancing, it has remained challenging to make virtual images appear more “solid” in front of real-world objects, an effect that’s essential for us in achieving depth perception.

Now, a team of researchers has developed a compact AR system that, using an array of miniature mirrors that switch positions tens of thousands of times per second, can create this elusive effect. They describe their new system in a study published February 13 in IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics.

Occlusion is when light from objects in the foreground block the light from objects at farther distances. Commercialized AR systems have limited occlusion because they tend to rely on a single spatial light modulator (SLM) to create the virtual images, while allowing natural light from real-world objects to also be perceived by the user.

“As can be seen with many commercial devices such as the Microsoft HoloLens or Magic Leap, not blocking high levels of incoming light [from real-world objects] means that virtual content becomes so transparent it becomes difficult to even see,” explains Brooke Krajancich, a researcher at Stanford University. This lack of occlusion can interfere with the user’s depth perception, which would be problematic in tasks requiring precision, such as AR-assisted surgery.

To achieve better occlusion, some researchers have been exploring the possibility of a second SLM that controls the incoming light of real-world objects. However, incorporating two SLMs into one system involves a lot of hardware, making it bulky. Instead, Krajancich and her colleagues developed a new design that combines virtual projection and light-blocking abilities into one element.

Their design relies on a dense array of miniature mirrors that can be individually flipped between two states—one that allows light through and one that reflects light—at a rate of up to tens of thousands of times per second.

“Our system uses these mirrors to switch between a see-through state, which allows the user to observe a small part of the real world, and a reflective state, where the same mirror blocks light from the scene in favor of an [artificial] light source,” explains Krajancich. The system computes the optimal arrangement for the mirrors and adjusts accordingly.

Krajancich notes some trade-offs with this approach, including some challenges in rendering colors properly. It also requires a lot of computing power, and therefore may require higher power consumption than other AR systems. While commercialization of this system is a possibility in the future, she says, the approach is still in the early research stages.

New Approach Could Protect Control Systems From Hackers

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/telecom/security/new-approach-protects-power-plants-other-major-control-systems-from-hacking

Some of the most important industrial control systems (ICSs), such as those that support power generation and traffic control, must accurately transmit data at the milli- or even mirco-second range. This means that hackers need interfere with the transmission of real-time data only for the briefest of moments to succeed in disrupting these systems. The seriousness of this type of threat is illustrated by the Stuxnet incursion in 2010, when attackers succeeded in hacking the system supporting Iran’s uranium enrichment factory, damaging more than 1000 centrifuges.

Now a trio of researchers has disclosed a novel technique that could more easily identify when these types of attacks occur, triggering an automatic shutdown that would prevent further damage.

The problem was first brought up in a conversation over coffee two years ago. “While describing the security measures in current industrial control systems, we realized we did not know any protection method on the real-time channels,” explains Zhen Song, a researcher at Siemens Corporation. The group began to dig deeper into the research, but couldn’t find any existing security measures.

Part of the reason is that traditional encryption techniques do not account for time. “As well, traditional encryption algorithms are not fast enough for industry hard real-time communications, where the acceptable delay is much less than 1 millisecond, even close to 10 microsecond level,” explains Song. “It will often take more than 100 milliseconds for traditional encryption algorithms to process a small chunk of data.”

However, some research has emerged in recent years about the concept of “watermarking” data during transmission, a technique that can indicate when data has been tampered with. Song and his colleagues sought to apply this concept to ICSs, in a way that would be broadly applicable and not require details of the specific ICS. They describe their approach in a study published February 5 in IEEE Transactions on Automation Science and Engineering. Some of the source code is available here

The approach involves the transmission of real-time data over an unencrypted channel, as conventionally done. In the experiment, a specialized algorithm in the form of a recursive watermark (RWM) signal is transmitted at the same time. The algorithm encodes a signal that is similar to “background noise,” but with a distinct pattern. On the receiving end of the data transmission, the RWM signal is monitored for any disruptions, which, if present, indicate an attack is taking place. “If attackers change or delay the real-time channel signal a little bit, the algorithm can detect the suspicious event and raise alarms immediately,” Song says.

Critically, a special “key” for deciphering the RWM algorithm is transmitted through an encrypted channel from the sender to the receiver before the data transmission takes place.

Tests show that this approach works fast to detect attacks. “We found the watermark-based approach, such as the RWM algorithm we proposed, can be 32 to 1375 times faster than traditional encryption algorithms in mainstream industrial controllers. Therefore, it is feasible to protect critical real-time control systems with new algorithms,” says Song.

Moving forward, he says this approach could have broader implications for the Internet of Things, which the researchers plan to explore more. 

New Antenna Will Boost UAV Communication with Satellites

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/aerospace/aviation/new-antenna-will-boost-uav-communication-with-satellites

A group of Chinese researchers has developed a compact, sabre-like antenna for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can switch between two radiation patterns for better communication coverage. They describe their work in a study published 26 February in IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation.

For UAVs cruising at high speeds, it’s desirable to have small, aerodynamic antennas that limit drag but can still yield sufficient bandwidth and coverage. Zhijun Zhang, a researcher at Tsinghua University, notes that sabre-shaped antennas are beneficial in the sense that they are very aerodynamic—but there is a major limitation that comes with this design.

“Conventional sabre-like antennas generate a donut-shape radiation pattern, which provides an omnidirectional coverage and is ideal for air-to-ground communication. However, a donut-shape pattern has a null at its zenith,” Zhang explains.

While this donut-shaped radiation pattern may be sufficient to help the UAV exchange signals with ground communication systems, the “blind spot” of coverage directly above the UAV is problematic when trying to establish communication with satellites (aka “hemisphere coverage”). Therefore Zhang and his team created a novel sabre-like antenna design that can provide a signal directly above the antenna as well.  

To accomplish this, the researchers incorporated two metal radiators into the design. The first is a monopole, which is perpendicular to the ground with an omnidirectional pattern. The second is a dipole, which is parallel to the ground with broadside pattern – creating a signal that fills the blind spot of conventional antennas. “The two radiators not only generate two working modes and desired radiation patterns, but also provide a bonus capacitor loading effect, which shrinks the antenna size,” says Zhang. “The antenna can switch between two modes on the fly, and thus provides top hemisphere coverage.”

Simulations and tests suggest that the design can achieve roughly 20 percent bandwidth, which surprised even the researchers behind the design. Zhang says this efficiency happens because both radiators are used in both modes. 

“As far as we know, it’s the first effort to realize such a compact aircraft antenna with upper hemispherical coverage and acceptable gain for onboard satellite communication. Next, we intend to design a simpler aircraft antenna with only one mode,” says Zhang, noting that this may involve sacrificing some bandwidth.  

Skin-like, Flexible Sensor Lets Robots Detect Us

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/robotics/robotics-hardware/skin-flexible-proximity-sensor-robots

A new sensor for robots is designed to make our physical interactions with these machines a little smoother—and safer. The sensor, which is now being commercialized, allows robots to measure the distance and angle of approach of a human or object in close proximity.

Industrial robots often work autonomously to complete tasks. But increasingly, collaborative robots are working alongside humans. To avoid collisions in these circumstances, collaborative robots need highly accurate sensors to detect when someone (or something) is getting a little too close.

Wearable Patch Uses Machine Learning to Detect Sleep Apnea

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/devices/prototype-wearable-monitor-sleep-apnea-news

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Getting screened for sleep apnea often means spending a night in a special clinic hooked up to sensors that measure your brain activity, eye movement, and blood oxygen levels. But for long-term, more convenient monitoring of sleep apnea, a team of researchers has developed a wearable device that tracks a user’s breathing. The device, described in a study published 20 January in the IEEE Journal of Biomedical and Health Informatics, uses a unique combination of bioimpedance (a measurement of electrical signals passing through the body) and machine learning algorithms.

Delivering More 5G Data With Less Hardware

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/telecom/wireless/delivering-more-5g-data-with-less-hardware

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Business districts may be bustling in the daytime, but they can often be near-deserted in the evenings. These fluctuations in population density pose a challenge to the emergence of 5G networks, which will require more hardware than ever before to relay massive amounts of data. Here’s the rub: To ensure reliable service, mobile networks must either invest in and deploy many more hardware units–or find ways to let the hardware move with the crowds.

One group of researchers is proposing a creative solution: installing small radio units on cars and crowdsourcing the task of data transmission when the vehicles are not un use. That approach relies on the fact that more cars tend to be parked in highly populated areas.

The most common network model that service providers are considering for 5G networks involves C-RAN architecture. Central units coordinate the transmission of data; the data is disseminated through distribution units and is further processed and transmitted by fleets of radio units. Those units convert the information to usable formats for mobile users.

Some researchers have explored deploying radio units on moving vehicles such as city buses which run along defined routes. But it has proven difficult to successfully transmit data via moving targets.

In a study published 20 January in IEEE Access, a Japanese research team showed that harnessing radio units on parked cars results in efficient data transmission, all while keeping radio units close to where people are. The team proposed a crowd-sourcing approach, in combination with a monetary or non-monetary incentive, which could be used to get drivers to participate.

With their approach, radio units are charged via the car battery and can be activated when the car is parked. When a crowd-sourced radio unit is available, it establishes a wireless mobile front-haul link with a neighboring distribution unit and starts working to transmit data to nearby phones.

In a series of simulations, the researchers compared the effectiveness of their approach to that of a traditional fleet of stationary radio units. The results show that 100 radio units installed on nearby parked cars that complement 200 stationary units (or 300 radio units total) can deliver data better than 400 uniformly dispersed stationary radio units. Thus, its possible to get better data throughput with fewer radio units that have the added benefit of almost always being where network users happen to be.

The researchers also confirmed the efficacy of this approach through experiments. “The improvement of throughput by locating and activating a radio unit near users was far higher than expected,” says Yu Nakayama, a member of the research team who is a professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. “This result implies the effectiveness of adaptively locating and activating radio units based on the distribution of mobile users,” adds Yu.

The group is interested in exploring the commercialization of this technique. “We believe that it is a promising solution for the future mobile networks beyond 5G,” Yu says.

How to Silently Hack a Smart Speaker

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/consumer-electronics/audiovideo/how-to-silently-hack-a-voice-assistance-system

“Okay, Google. Turn the volume up to max.”

Imagine if this voice command was applied to your Google Home system without you hearing it. A group of researchers in Japan have shown that this is possible, by using strategically placed speakers that emit ultrasound to hack voice-assisted devices.

Voice assistance systems such as Siri, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa has grown in popularity in recent years, but these remain vulnerable to several different forms of hacking—attacking either the software or hardware that the systems rely on.

“An effective countermeasure against these attacks is to fix the vulnerability,” explains Ryo Iijima, a researcher at Waseda University. “In contrast, our new Audio Hotspot Attack technique leverages a physical phenomenon [that occurs as ultrasound waves travel] in the air, which cannot be changed in nature.”

His team’s new hacking technique, described in a study published in the 19 November edition of IEEE Transactions on Emerging Topics in Computing, relies on parametric speakers. That type of speaker is capable of emitting ultrasound (inaudible to the human hear) in a directional manner. Placed at the right location and directed towards the voice assistance system, these speakers can emit ultrasound waves containing the secret voice command, which only becomes audible at certain distances.

The delay in audibility happens because the frequency of the sound wave changes as it moves through the air, eventually hitting a threshold that is audible only once the sound wave is in close proximity of the targeted voice-assisted system.  What’s more, the researchers used an amplifier to ensure that the volume of the voice command is normal by the time it reaches its target.  

The attack could be carried out with a single parametric speaker directed at the voice assistance system, or two speakers whose sound waves “cross” right at the location of the system. The first approach yields a stronger voice command, while the latter approach offers more precision and a lower chance of being heard by someone standing close to the target. 

The researchers tested their ultrasound approach with 18 volunteers under two different scenarios: a standard size room and a long hallway. For their experiments, they attempted to impose their ultrasound commands onto two smart speakers, Amazon Echo and Google Home, from several distances with 0.5-meter increments. A smart phone was used to generate malicious voice commands from the parametric loudspeakers.

An attack was considered successful if three consecutive voice commands were accepted at a given distance. The results suggest that attacks from 3.5 meters are the most successful, but the hallway experiments show that this technique is effective from distances as far as 12 m. Google Home was more vulnerable to attack than Amazon Echo.

“We knew the theory of directional sound beams before we started our experiments,” says Iijima. “But what was surprising to us after we performed the experiments was that such directional sound beams were actually non-recognizable by the participants of our experiments, while [the sound] successfully activated all speakers.”

In this study, the voiceprint technology required to authenticate a user was deactivated, so a generic, computer-generated voice was able to activate the systems and provide commands. However, the research team says they’ve done preliminary experiments with recorded voiceclips of legitimate users, finding that these could be transmitted inaudibly via ultrasound and be used to activate the voice assistance systems.

A key limitation of this approach is the fact that any objects between the parametric speakers and the system being hacked would interfere with the transmission of the sound waves. “One possible method of overcoming this limitation would be to install parametric loudspeakers on a ceiling, thus creating a ‘sound shower,’” Iijima explains.

Hand-Tracking Tech Watches Riders in Self-Driving Cars to See If They’re Ready to Take the Wheel

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/cars-that-think/transportation/self-driving/handtracking-tech-for-the-next-generation-of-autonomous-cars

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Researchers have developed a new technique for tracking the hand movements of a non-attentive driver, to calculate how long it would take the driver to assume control of a self-driving car in an emergency.

If manufacturers can overcome the final legal hurdles, cars with Level 3 autonomous vehicle technology will one day be chauffeuring people from A to B. These cars allow a driver to have his or her eyes off the road and the freedom to do minor tasks (such as texting or watching a movie). However, these cars need a way of knowing how quickly—or slowly—a driver can respond when taking control during an emergency.

To address this need, Kevan Yuen and Mohan Trivedi at the University of California, San Diego developed their new hand-tracking system, which is described in a study published 22 November in IEEE Transactions on Intelligent Vehicles.

Screening Technique Found 142 Malicious Apps in Apple’s App Store

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/computing/software/new-screening-technique-reveals-142-malicious-apple-apps

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Apple’s App Store is renowned for its security—but even Apple is inadvertently allowing a small handful of malicious apps to sneak through its screening process and onto some people’s phones, new research shows. The good news is that the researchers involved, who published their findings on 31 October in IEEE Transactions on Dependable and Secure Computing, have also uncovered a way to detect these Trojan horses.

Thanks to strict guidelines and bans on certain practices that facilitate the spread of malicious apps, the vast majority of apps in Apple’s App Store are safe. However, some malicious apps are still making their way through the screening process by exhibiting one user interface while harboring a second, malicious user interface.   

“[These apps] display a benign user interface under Apple’s review but reveal their hidden, harmful user interfaces after being installed on users’ devices,” explains Yeonjoon Lee, a researcher at Hanyang University who was involved in the study.

New AI System Predicts Seizures With Near-Perfect Accuracy

Post Syndicated from Michelle Hampson original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/diagnostics/this-new-ai-system-can-predict-seizures-with-nearperfect-accuracy

For the roughly 50 million people worldwide with epilepsy, the exchange of electrical signals between cells in their brain can sometimes go haywire and cause a seizure—often with little to no warning. Two researchers at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette have developed a new AI-powered model that can predict the occurrence of seizures up to one hour before onset with 99.6 percent accuracy.

“Due to unexpected seizure times, epilepsy has a strong psychological and social effect on patients,” explains Hisham Daoud, a researcher who co-developed the new model.

Detecting seizures ahead of time could greatly improve the quality of life for patients with epilepsy and provide them with enough time to take action, he says. Notably, seizures are controllable with medication in up to 70 percent of these patients.