Who are the guardians of the robots?

The volume and ingenuity of today's cyber threats requires a 'defense-in-depth' approach to secure the control and network systems that operate the robots.

Industrial security has always been a focus for ABB as many of our products and services are used in mission-critical industries. Generating electricity or operating an oil field need to be safe and reliable, which means they also need to be secure from threats, whether physical or virtual.

There are two major ways in which this mandate is taking on even greater importance for us, and they both have to do with robots.

First, many companies are still at an early stage of what will become a steep adoption curve for using industrial robots for ever more responsible duties in factories. The most advanced models already have a large range of potential movement, thanks to their mechanical design and due to software to program and run the robots.

Such advances enable closer and more frequent human-robot collaboration.

For instance, our world-leading collaborative robot YuMi® is accurate enough to thread a needle. It can be taught to do so through physical guidance by a human, making complex, time-consuming code-based instructions unnecessary.

Second, robots are more and more connected to the Industrial Internet of Things via integrated computer networks and/or the so-called cloud; in fact, all new ABB robots are configured to use data-driven analytics to improve performance, reliability, and the lifetime value of hardware.

This rise in usage, functionality and connectivity calls for more security, especially cyber security, and begs the question:
Who are the guardians of the robots?

After all, robots are, well, robots, not security devices, and they’re beholden to the networked systems that manage them. Imagine a house in which robots are rooms; security depends on the “locks” on the windows and outside doors. There’s little reason to protect a bathroom or closet from theft, right?

Wrong. Our deep experience with digitalization tells us that the ever-increasing number of robots that are automated or controlled remotely, combined with the volume and ingenuity of today’s cyber threats, require security at every level of the enterprise; it’s an approach called “defense-in-depth,” and gives our customers successive (and different) lines of protection against breeches or hacks.

A reminder of the importance of this topic came in November 2016, when security researchers looked at an ABB robot. It wasn’t necessarily a real-world environment, but they discovered potential risks to both control and network systems. We quickly embraced their findings, and took immediate steps to “harden” the robot control software.

That experience also illustrated the importance of collaboration and innovation in securing industrial robots between security experts, academicians, businesses, and customers.

For our part, ABB is aggressively developing new security services and features on ABB Ability™, which is our unified, cross-industry digital capability that ranges from device to edge to cloud. We provide tools to secure systems, data, and IP that, if properly implemented and managed, provide a secure framework for customers to embrace and benefit from the use of industrial robots.

Ultimately, who are the guardians of the robots? We all are, and ABB is leading that charge.

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About the author

Reiner Schoenrock

I am the Head of Strategic Product and Innovation communications at ABB. Previously, I worked in various communication positions at Siemens and Infineon Technologies.
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