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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU researchers study national infrastructure security

A presidential directive to assess the security of the nation's financial, power, transportation and telecommunication systems will mean at least three years of work for a team of New Mexico State University researchers and students. The interdisciplinary team will concentrate on the way the systems are controlled and maintained in the new information age.


The NMSU effort is led by Kristin Glass, a project manager at the Physical Science Laboratory; Richard Colbaugh, a mechanical engineering professor; and Ernie Barany, an associate professor of mathematics. Working with NMSU students, defense contractor Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, they are applying a range of tools in the field known as systems theory to determine the infrastructure's vulnerability against various types of threats, especially from an information point of view.

"In an electrical grid, for example, the security against nature is very good," Colbaugh said. "It's not so good against someone intentionally messing with it. It's more subtle how people can get to the information part. That's what we want to look at and help protect against."

Interconnected systems would provide back-up power if lightning were to hit; however, the same quality could allow a terrorist to cause problems for many with access to one point, he explained. The systems have much more intelligence now, which means physical security is no longer the only consideration.

The NMSU researchers are using systems theory because it provides a framework for discussing a wide range of physical behavior in a common language, said Barany. "It's a way of looking at the commonalities."

Systems theory identifies the commonalities by concentrating on the mathematical description of system behavior, Barany said. "For example, from a systems theoretic point of view, devices as different as an automobile suspension and a radio receiver are seen to be mathematically very similar because they both are designed to respond to external vibrations," he explained. "The fact that the vibrations are mechanical in the first case and electrical in the second is irrelevant to the math."

One of the half dozen systems theory tools at the team's disposal is stability theory, Colbaugh said. When a system or group of systems is stable, small disturbances will not cause problems, he explained. If someone can make the system unstable, a small agitation can have large effects. The problem is that it's often hard to tell that the system is unstable until something happens, Colbaugh said.

The researchers use stability theory to predict the systems' security against entire classes of disturbances "without having to think of every possibility individually," Colbaugh said.

The research recognizes that systems are dynamic, he pointed out. The demands on the systems change at different times, like a city highway during rush hour. The logic is very different, although the physical properties are the same, he said.

A distinctive component of the researchers' approach, Colbaugh said, is studying a global view of the infrastructure systems. "We're not just looking at electric utilities or transportation planning," he said. "We're looking at how they interact and what's common about them all."

The project began in Las Cruces about a year ago, and will continue for two more years, with a year-to-year commitment after that. "So far we have found significant insights," Colbaugh said. "This seems to be the right approach."

Bringing this type of major project involving outside corporations to the area also will help enhance the region's economic development, Colbaugh said.

"The success of this project is due to the efforts of many people from different areas, including the faculty on the project and the support of Congressman Skeen, who helped secure the funding," Glass said.