In 2021, a water treatment facility in Oldsmar, Florida, was hacked by an unknown adversary.
It was a cyberattack, and the sensor responsible for measuring how much sodium hydroxide is in the water was compromised. Within seconds, the hacker attempted to change the water supply’s levels of sodium hydroxide, moving the setting from 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million. At this level, sodium hydroxide severely damages any human tissue it touches and, in some instances, can cause fatalities.
Luckily, the treatment plant identified the cyberattack and stopped pumping the poisonous water before it reached Oldsmar residents.
Why Oldsmar, a small city of about 15,000 people — a third of the population of Blacksburg?
That’s still unclear.
But what is clear is that these types of attacks can happen anywhere, on any given day – and they do.
In response to the ongoing threats to the world’s water utilities, Virginia Tech recently opened the AI and Cyber for Water and Ag (ACWA) lab – the first lab in the world to combine cyberbiosecurity and artificial intelligence automation to research water security.
The multidisciplinary lab is in the Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building on the university’s Blacksburg campus and is run by a team of artificial intelligence (AI) experts whose focus is water and agricultural systems.
Feras A. Batarseh, associate professor with the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, leads the research team of master’s students, Ph.D. candidates, and postdoctoral associates: Ajay Kulkarni, Siam Maksud, Chhayly Sreng, Justice Lin, and Reilly Oare. Batarseh is also associated with the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI), Virginia’s main access point for cybersecurity research, innovation, and workforce development, and a collaborator of the ACWA lab.
The lab consists of multiple topologies, sensors, computational nodes, pumps, pipes, tanks, valves, smart water devices, soil beds, central processing units, graphic processing units, as well as databases and AI models that control the system.
It’s main goal is to address critical challenges in the water and agricultural domains by utilizing cutting-edge AI and data-driven technologies. These challenges include cyberbiosecurity, resources’ management, access to water, sustainability, and data-driven decision-making, among others.
“ACWA lab is aimed at creating a test bed for water supply systems, water distribution systems, and water treatment plants in the United States to test potential incidents, like cyberattacks, and protect against them,” Batarseh said. “The lab is able to provide data sets that are not easily created anywhere else in the world by combining the cyber components and computational components with water quality and quantity aspects, such as water flow, pH and nitrogen rates, and so on.”