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Electronics Production | May 12, 2017

As a kid, I wanted a robot

A big one; that could touch the sky and look beyond the clouds. I was a bit naïve back then, not quite grasping the power you could wield if you actually controlled a robot.
Fast forward a few years and we see the arrival of industrial robots; complex systems used for manufacturing and a critical component of any modern factory. And now imagine what you could do if you controlled the 100kg arm of an industrial robot.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one that found that question interesting. A research team from security company Trend Micro and Italian Technical University Politecnico di Milano tried to hack industrial robots connected to the internet. The robots in the study were made by five of the industry’s biggest manufacturers: ABB, Mitsubishi, Fanuc, Yaskawa and Kawasaki.

The researchers found multiple inroads into the robots’ operating systems. In a simple example – as shown in the video above – the robot was asked to draw a straight line. After the reconfiguration of the robot’s programming the line was two millimetres off target. That change might seem miniscule – unless you consider how it could affect the welding of an airplane wing.

But it wasn't all just serious research and no fun. In the study, the 'hackers' also imagined a scenario where a compromised robot appears to function normally, then trick an employee into entering its cage just to cause physical harm to the human. I am pretty sure I have already sat through that b-roll horror flick, if only just to impress a guy.

The robot shown in the video is manufactured by ABB. The Swiss-Swedish tech-giant – after being contacted by the researchers about the security concerns – said it had addressed the issue and responded by sending out fixes for all of the bugs. “Yes, the specific software vulnerabilities that we discovered in ABB's RobotWare and [which*] we mention in our report have been fixed immediately after they have been reported in late 2016. We acknowledge that ABB has been extremely fast in fixing them and [has been*] supportive of our work: it has been a pleasure for us working with them”, the researchers wrote in a statement.

Given the fact that the International Federation of Robotics forecasts that by 2018, approximately 1.3 million industrial robot units will be employed in factories globally, and the international market value for robotic systems will reach approximately USD 32 billion, we should definitely pay more attention to our 'iron friends'.
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* added by editorial

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November 14 2017 8:30 PM V8.8.9-1