Two men looking at a model
Nathan Puryear, left, and Mostafa Zaman check out the VCU College of Engineering's OpenCyberCity Testbed, which runs experiments related to smart cities and autonomous vehicles on a realistic, small-scale cityscape. (Photo by Dan Wagner, VCU Engineering)

New VCU engineering test beds will boost security of state’s NextG, medical devices and smart cities

The test beds — funded by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative — include equipment to run 5G experiments, test commercial medical devices and experiment on a realistic, small-scale smart cityscape.

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The Commonwealth Cyber Initiative has aided in funding three new test beds at Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Engineering to help researchers and industry partners analyze the security of medical devices, NextG applications and smart city operations.

The test beds were developed under the leadership of Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., director of the CCI Central Virginia regional node and a professor and chair of VCU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“These test beds will benefit researchers — both faculty and students — as well as the commonwealth at large,” Topsakal said. “They help support and inspire entrepreneurship and spin-off companies that will bolster CCI's goal of supporting workforce development throughout the commonwealth."

The new test beds are:

  • The NextG test bed, which provides radio silence allowing for 5G experiments in an isolated environment.
  • The Medical Device Security test bed, which tests commercial medical devices to locate and provide suggestions for the mitigation of vulnerabilities.
  • The OpenCyberCity test bed, which runs experiments related to smart cities and autonomous vehicles on a realistic, small-scale cityscape.

“Cybersecurity must be woven into the devices that connect our lives — from hospital beds to the cars we drive,” said Luiz DaSilva, Ph.D., executive director of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, a network of industry, higher education and economic development partners that serves as an engine for research, workforce development and innovation at the intersection of cybersecurity, autonomous systems and intelligence.

“The new test beds at VCU add to the CCI network’s capability to evaluate technology and applications from industry and government partners before they’re commonly used,” DaSilva said. “The test beds also will provide meaningful experiential learning opportunities for students to prepare them for a career in cybersecurity.”

A 1:12 scale model, OpenCyberCity is a smart city test bed where students can learn about several aspects of modern smart cities. The test bed consists of data collection and processing units, database management, distributed performance management algorithms, and real-time data visualization, said Sherif Abdelwahed, Ph.D., project director and VCU electrical and computer engineering professor.

“The test bed provides a near real-life platform to allow students to learn about the unique features of smart cities and explore the supporting technologies,” he said. Six graduate students are working on OpenCyberCity-related projects.

The smart city test bed’s Intelligent Transportation System includes autonomous cars and intelligent infrastructure.

“Students and researchers will be able to experiment with algorithms that ensure safety, efficiency and security across these systems,” said Patrick Martin, Ph.D., VCU electrical and computer engineering assistant professor. “In the future, we also plan to add micro-unmanned aerial vehicles to expand the transportation use cases to include urban air mobility as well as emergency response.”

The OpenCyberCity test bed connects to the Medical Device Security test bed through a firewall. Wearable devices, beds and other gear equipped with sensors could help more people age in place, said Lauren Linkous, a VCU electrical and computer engineering doctoral student who is working in the university’s Medical Device Security test bed along with fellow doctoral student Erwin Karincic. However, these devices must have cybersecurity incorporated into the design from the beginning. That’s not always the case, Linkous noted.

“Security is sometimes patched on at the end,” she said. This leaves an opening for bad actors to hack into sensitive systems, possibly spoofing or faking what is actually happening to a person or putting them in danger.

The NextG test bed is the place to evaluate the networked underpinnings of many of the advanced applications in smart cities and medical devices. Researchers are working on characterizing the emitted signals of medical devices under attack, which will help create detection systems to secure medical devices in networked health care environments.

In addition, researchers in the NextG test bed are building and characterizing new magnetic materials, which may prove useful for radio frequency shielding and power dissipation as applied to telecommunications, security, medical and smart city applications, said Jonathan Lundquist, a VCU electrical and computing engineering doctoral student.