Research partnerships lead to secure, resilient transportation systems

A summer research program sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security has brought together faculty and students from the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (CIRI) with those from a predominantly minority serving institution to intensively explore a growing area of study – connected transportation systems.

Dr. Gurcan Comert, an associate professor of transportation engineering at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, served as lead investigator for this summer study, conducted at CIRI, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center of Excellence led by the University of Illinois. Comert and Jacquan Pollard, a junior in electrical engineering at Benedict, were awarded a DHS grant for their proposal to study how connected transportation systems can be enhanced to withstand sub-system or component failure or intentional attack. This rendering by the U.S. Department of Transportation demonstrates the sophistication and complexity of a connected transportation system.

“Transportation systems are considered an essential element of a smart city,” says Comert. “We know that connected vehicles can enhance traffic flow and safety, but they also can introduce risk and cybersecurity concerns. Our project will help us better understand traffic control system failures and their impact on critical infrastructures.”

Connected vehicles are defined as any vehicle equipped with on-board communication systems that can access a network and communicate with both internal and external devices. Early versions of connected vehicles would have included those with integrated GPS, cell phones, and Bluetooth systems. As the concept of ‘smart cities’ has become a reality, connected vehicles have evolved to the next generation, which includes vehicles that can communicate with traffic lights, safety signs, and other pedestrians, bikers, and drivers on the road.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, connected vehicles are expected to be the third major advancement in reducing traffic related fatalities, after seatbelts and airbags. With the advent of connected devices, vehicular safety takes another big step forward by being able to predict and prevent accidents. For example, if you’re entering an intersection with a light that is about to turn red, the transportation infrastructure can anticipate a potential accident and lengthen the timing of your yellow light to prevent a collision with oncoming traffic.

Connected vehicles have obvious benefits to transportation safety, but according to Comert, there hasn’t been a significant amount of research done on the cybersecurity of connected transportation systems. His project this summer is an extension of some of his previous work, but with an increased focus on the cyber-physical connection. Comert’s ultimate goal is to support the Department of Transportation in their efforts to create intelligent traffic controllers and he believes this project has advanced that cause.

“We want to learn how signal controllers are impacted by failure or attack,” Comert says. “There are many different parts within these transportation systems – cameras, radars, vehicles, meters, signals. This project helped us confirm that risks from connected vehicles do have an impact on transportation systems. Our next step is to identify detection tools that help mitigate the impact of a failure.”

Dr. Gurcan Comert and undergraduate student Jacquan Pollard collaborated with CIRI faculty and students on a summer research project funded through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.Comert and Pollard worked on this project in conjunction with Dr. David Nicol, CIRI director and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Illinois, and his team of students. One of the greatest benefits of this opportunity, according to Comert, was his access to a leading expert in the field and the resources of a large institution like the University of Illinois. He credits DHS with having the foresight to offer a program that helps connect scientific researchers from smaller academic institutions with others in the field. The experience has added a new dimension to his portfolio of projects that he believes will shape his future research interests. This was also the first major research effort that Pollard was part of and Comert was pleased with his student’s performance.

“The goal of the DHS summer research program is to equip research teams at minority serving institutions with tools and experiences to expand their scientific contributions,” says Matthew Coats, Deputy Director of the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of University Programs. “The MSI summer program allows us to introduce a new set of students and researchers to the DHS mission while they help us advance our understanding of some of our most pressing strategic concerns. Dr. Comert’s project is a great example of the type of win-win partnerships we are working to create.”

Comert and Pollard have submitted a final report based on the models they developed and data they collected. Comert hopes to expound on this effort by following up with a project that will explore the development a physical signal controller. Future efforts will include extensive simulation testing to determine how signal controllers respond to various attack types.