BLACKSBURG, Va. — 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.”
Real-world experience for a real-world threat
Batarseh and his team of student researchers call themselves “A3 Lab,” which stands for for AI assurance and applications. They develop AI models and algorithms that could be used for agricultural decision-making optimization and security.
They are in partnership with the university’s Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture and the 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers across the state, and they provide farmers AI algorithms to enhance the tools and farming methods they use.
Their main focus, however, is water systems and how water affects agriculture when it comes to irrigation.
“We work closely with treatment facilities to minimize the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that they discharge in rivers,” Batarseh said. “For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has relevant regulations. If phosphorus or nitrogen discharge rates exceeds a certain amount, those utilities get penalized and pay fees. If your phosphorus and nitrogen rates are below a certain threshold, then you gain points that you can then trade. Using AI, we can optimize the discharge of pollutants overall. Besides the environmental aspects, there’s a financial benefit, but the most important aspect that we care about here is securing those facilities from domestic and foreign adversarial actors.”
The ACWA lab provides a perfect place for biological systems engineering students to enhance all of these skills and uplift their research — in real time and around the clock.
The team built the lab from the ground up. They laugh at the numerous trips they took to Home Depot and the days they stayed in the lab until midnight, cutting PVC pipe and gaining hands-on skills they never thought they would as AI scientists.
“The students have been really excited about the ACWA lab for many reasons,” Batarseh said. “One, is the novelty, and they feel they are a part of something that was never built anywhere else in the world, until now.”
Their work has been recognized by the Water Environmental Foundation as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. They recently won first place in the Intelligent Water Systems National Challenge, one that historically considered submissions from several R1 universities across the United States.
–Max Esterhuizen, Virginia Tech