Secure communications protocol for safety related and critical systems.

 

The Organisation

DefineX offers expertise in embedded, electrical, control & instrumentation systems and health & safety, quality and environmental management. DefineX works with the clients across a variety of sectors from the initial concept, through the bid, design and development stages to the testing and delivery and disposal.

www.definex.co.uk

The Challenge

Information security is extremely important in almost every aspect of our lives, e.g. in relation to credit card transactions, network credentials, telephone communications, and bank transfers.

Dr Tomislav Stankovski, Professor Peter McClintock and Professor Aneta Stefanovska, from the Physics Department at LancasterUniversity, developed (Phys. Rev. X 4, 011026 (2014)) and together with Dr Robert Young filed a patent application (GB1314114.8) for a novel encryption protocol that is highly resistant to conventional attacks and noisy channels.

For example, monitoring of a transport line carrying radioactive material in a nuclear plant requires several tens of embedded systems to collect the required information and try to transmit it simultaneously and securely through a hardwired cable. High noise originating from radiation and electrical sources often harms the accurate communication.

DefineX identified a specific hardware application related to critical safety systems which could be facilitated by the researchers’ novel encryption scheme. The problem they faced was related to secure communication of multiple real-time control/video information streams in a critical safety-related secure environment in the presence of noise.

In this application the need for secure communication with multiple channels in presence of high noise fits, precisely and perhaps uniquely, to Lancaster’s coupling functions encryption scheme. Alternatively, this same information could be communicated via radio frequency, in the presence of noise but with an increased resistance to security breaches.

Expertise Sought

  • Digital communications
  • Novel encryption protocol that is highly resistant to conventional attacks and noisy channels.

The Solution

Working with DefineX, the researchers developed a hardware implementation of their recently invented secure communications protocol, taking it from a theoretical proof-of-concept to working prototypes using microcontrollers, which could facilitate secure communication in safety-critical systems, in noisy environments. The researchers created a working prototype using simple, single-board computers (Raspberry Pi) to test the encryption and decryption algorithms, and evaluated the performance of the prototypes, readying them for market. The research team were able to work with DefineX to provide the specified technology.

Cost

Lancaster Physicists and DefineX successfully applied for £10,000 of seed funding from the Lancaster University Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) for the subsistence and travel expenses of Postdoctoral Research Associate (now Lecturer in Skopje) Tomislav Stankovski plus the cost of materials and components. The IAA is £600,000 funding from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council to finance range of activities designed to foster greater collaboration with industry and bridge the gap between the lab and the marketplace.

Impact

The lab-based prototype has seeded the vision of a final product in the form of an optimised embedded device for secure communication with significant potential commercial value. The product will have a wide variety of applications as it is highly resistant to conventional attacks and noisy channels. Broad application areas include mobiles and wireless communications. A patent application has been filed on the novel encryption tool.

Benefits to the company

  • Helped provide expertise for a bid for a large contract
  • Hardware solution tailored to solve the company’s problem
  • Potential to be the first-to-market this unique solution
  • Potential for increased turnover
  • Provides a higher degree of reliability and data protection for the user
  • Potential for additional jobs to be created 

Benefits to the university

  • Opportunity for researchers to collaborate closely with an industrial partner, and to explore and develop a sought after product
  • Springboard for a new bid for research funding with DefineX as consultant and partner.

Future Plans  

It is planned to seek further funding to take this prototype to the next level to empirically prove the theory by safety and security testing. This may involve other departments within the University. Following this, productionising will be considered.