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University of Florida partners with Air Force to combat cyberattacks

By DANIEL SMITHSON | The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun | Published: May 19, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — The University of Florida has partnered with the U.S. Air Force to create a center to better fortify autonomous vehicles against cyberattacks.

UF and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) have launched a Center of Excellence for Assured Autonomy in Contested Environments at the UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, the school announced Monday.

The center's purpose will be to study, research and develop methods to better protect information shared via autonomous vehicles — like drones — from getting into the wrong hands, to block enemy agents from hacking into the autonomous vehicle controls and computer systems, and to build up autonomous vehicles' tolerance to cyberattacks, said Warren Dixon, a professor at the engineering college's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

The goal of the research is to assure that autonomous agents can fulfill their missions in contested environments.

"We're looking to develop very specific methods to enhance the privacy of information exchanges," Dixon said. "We're also building up the resiliency of the (autonomous vehicles') design up front, asking what we can do to harden against a cyberattack. We're also building up its robustness, so that, even if it's attacked, we're building up a tolerance to that attack."

A $2 million AFOSR sponsorship will cover an initial two-year research period. The Air Force could choose to extend the sponsorship, with optional extensions up to a total of six years and $6 million dollars, or $1 million a year. To reach its goals, research breakthroughs are required in the mathematics of learning, optimization, automatic control, sensing, communications, networking and resilience to cyber effects, according to a UF media release.

"After two years, we will be judged based on their merits and they'll decide whether or not they've liked what we've done," Dixon said.

The research team, according to an Air Force media release, is made up of a mix of senior and junior researchers from the University of Florida, Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California Santa Cruz, and Munitions, Sensors, and Space Vehicles Directorates within the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The team has experts in aerospace, computer, electrical and mechanical engineering.

Dixon said the intellectual property developed at the Center of Excellence will remain UF's property, but the Air Force, "because they're paying for it," will have free rights to it.

He said he is excited UF was chosen for the center, beating out competition from universities across the country.

"It's huge that we were selected. Nearly every top school in engineering wants it and for us to win over them, a very competitive group, it's amazing," he said. "It's a timely problem that we have (already) been investigating part of the problem. It was the right time for the right team."

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