One year after the launch of the Center for Hardware and Embedded Systems Security and Trust, a National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research Center in which the University of Virginia is a principal partner, UVA Engineering is leading two research projects and is participating in a third.

Known as CHEST, the Center for Hardware and Embedded Systems Security and Trust focuses on fundamental research and workforce development to address challenges industries and governments face in the design, protection and resilience of hardware from security vulnerabilities associated with electronic hardware and embedded systems.

An embedded system is a computer with a dedicated function within a larger electrical or mechanical system. Embedded systems occur everywhere in the devices we use today, from iPhones to airplanes.

The hardware and software that make up these systems can be designed to protect consumers, industries and governments from people with bad intent — but they can also be entry points for counterfeiters, thieves or hackers. The center’s researchers aim to prevent that from happening.

“We received funding for a healthy set of projects that we started working on in May,” said James H. Lambert, a professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, an expert in risk management in engineering systems and the principal investigator on the UVA-led projects.

Funding for the projects comes from the National Science Foundation, in addition to contributions from the center’s university and industry members. The money is distributed through a member balloting process, Lambert said.

The purpose of UVA Engineering’s first project is to develop an analytical tool to determine the most cost-effective deployment of measures to reduce the risk of counterfeit electronics in large-scale systems. The second project addresses electric vehicle-to-grid charging technology to understand and mitigate risks, and create resilience and trust in the relationships between the power grid, charging systems and communications networks.

Industry sponsors for the projects include Fermata Energy, a company developing bi-directional charging technology for electric vehicles; the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems, a public-private Virginia entity focused on transporting commercial goods efficiently and safely; and SPA Inc., a logistics solutions company. Each sponsor will serve as a test site for the tools Lambert’s group develops, Lambert said.

Lambert’s team includes consultant Zachary Collier, a 2018 graduate of the systems engineering Ph.D. program and former fellow in UVA Engineering’s Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems. Collier recently was named an assistant professor of management at Radford University. Thomas Polmateer, a logistics research systems analyst in the Department of Engineerng Systems and Environment, is a co-principal investigator on the counterfeit electronics risk reduction tool project. Polmateer also is secretary of the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems and a member of its board of directors.

Collier is also a co-principal investigator with electrical and computer engineering associate professor Ronald Williams, UVA’s principal investigator on a University of Cincinnati-led reverse engineering project aimed at detecting Trojan circuits discovered in third-party intellectual property. UVA’s interest in the project integrates investigative threads of the UVA Hypersonics Research Complex.

“Topics of special interest to the CHEST include reverse engineering. If a hypersonic weapon were to be captured, could its hardware and software be reverse engineered? The supply chain for the electronics, security and trust of the electronics, and command and control systems, in this case as they relate to hypersonic aviation systems, are also of interest,” Lambert said. He noted the work in hypersonic research came at the request of the U.S. Navy.

The Navy isn’t the only military branch invested in the center’s work, Lambert said.

“The Air Force is the largest funding source across all two dozen industry members, for its electronics systems,” he said. “They did the keynote talk at the Sept. 11, 2020, CHEST meeting.”

Doing much of the grind-it-out work on these projects are four Ph.D. students and five undergraduates in engineering systems and environment.

“UVA is delivering students who are willing to work on hypersonic technologies one day, banks the next, and the environment the day after that. That’s the first recognition you’re a systems engineer,” Lambert said, “when you find yourself doing biology, or, you know, something outside your comfort zone.”

Read the original reporting of the Center for Hardware and Embedded Systems and Trust.

Portrait of Professor James H. Lambert

James H. Lambert, a professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment and director of the Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems, led the effort at UVA to create the Center for Hardware and Embedded Systems Security and Trust, a National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research Center.