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Researchers hack teleoperated surgical robot to reveal security flaws

08 May 2015

A next-generation tele-operated surgical robot is hacked as part of a research experiment to test how easily a malicious attack could hijack remote operations.

UW reseachers mounted cyberattacks while study participants used the Raven II surgical robotic system to move rubber blocks on a pegboard (photo: University of Washington)

Real-world tele-operated robots, which are controlled by a human who may be in another physical location, are expected to become more commonplace as the technology evolves. They're ideal for situations that are dangerous for people: fighting fires in chemical plants, diffusing explosive devices or extricating earthquake victims from collapsed buildings.

Outside of a handful of experimental surgeries conducted remotely, doctors typically use surgical robots today to operate on a patient in the same room using a secure, hard-wired connection. But tele-robots may one day routinely provide medical treatment in underdeveloped rural areas, battlefield scenarios, Ebola wards or catastrophic disasters happening half a world away.

In two recent papers, University of Washington (UW) BioRobotics Lab researchers demonstrated that next generation tele-operated robots using non-private networks (which may be the only option in disasters or in remote locations) can be easily disrupted or derailed by common forms of cyber-attacks. Incorporating security measures to foil those attacks, the authors argue, will be critical to their safe adoption and use.

To expose vulnerabilities, the UW team mounted common types of cyber-attacks as study participants used a teleoperated surgical robot developed at UW for research purposes to move rubber blocks between pegs on a pegboard.

By mounting 'man in the middle' attacks, which alter the commands flowing between the operator and robot, the team was able to maliciously disrupt a wide range of the robot's functions, making it hard to grasp objects with the robot's arms, and even to override command inputs. During denial-of-service attacks, in which the attacking machine flooded the system with useless data, the robots became jerky and harder to use.

In some cases, the human operators were eventually able to compensate for those disruptions, given the relatively simple task of moving blocks. In situations where precise movements can mean the difference between life and death these types of cyber-attacks could have more serious consequences, the researchers believe.

With a single packet of bad data, for instance, the team was able to maliciously trigger the robot's emergency stop mechanism, rendering it useless.

In future tele-robotic procedures, the last link may be a wireless uplink (dotted lines) to a drone or satellite that is more easily hacked than pre-established network connections (solid lines). Diagram courtesy of University of Washington

The tests were conducted with the Raven II, an open source tele-operated robotic system developed by UW electrical engineering professor Blake Hannaford and former UW professor Jacob Rosen, along with their students. Raven II, currently manufactured and sold by Seattle-based Applied Dexterity Inc., a UW spin-out, is a next-generation tele-operated robotic system designed to support research in advanced techniques of robotic-assisted surgery. The system is not currently in clinical use and is not approved by the FDA.

The surgical robots that are FDA-approved for clinical use today use a different communication channel and typically do not rely on publicly available networks, which would make the cyber-attacks the UW team tested much harder to mount.

But if tele-operated robots will be used in locations where there's no secure alternative to networks or other communication channels that are easy to hack, it's important to begin designing and incorporating additional security features now, the researchers argue.

Encrypting data packets that flow between the robot and human operator would help prevent certain types of cyber-attacks. But it isn't effective against denial-of-service attacks that bog down the system with extraneous data. With video, encryption also runs the risk of causing unacceptable delays in delicate operations.

The UW team is also developing the concept of 'operator signatures' that reflect ways in which a particular surgeon or other tele-operator interacts with a robot to create a unique biometric signature.

By tracking the forces and torque that a particular operator applies to the console instruments and his or her interactions with the robot's tools, the researchers have developed a novel way to validate that person's identity and authenticate that the operator is the person he or she claims to be.

Moreover, monitoring those actions and reactions during a tele-robotic procedure could give early warning that someone else has hijacked that process.

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