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.”

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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.

The ACWA Team (from left): Justice Lin, Ajay Kulkarni, Feras A. Batarseh, Chhayly Sreng, and Siam Maksud. (Not pictured, Reilly Oare). Photo by Tim Skiles for Virginia Tech.

The ACWA Team (from left): Justice Lin, Ajay Kulkarni, Feras A. Batarseh, Chhayly Sreng, and Siam Maksud. (Not pictured, Reilly Oare). Photo by Tim Skiles for Virginia Tech.
The ACWA team includes (from left) Justice Lin, Ajay Kulkarni, Feras A. Batarseh, Chhayly Sreng, and Siam Maksud. Reilly Oare is not pictured. Photo by Tim Skiles for Virginia Tech.

Meet the ACWA team

Ajay Kulkarni, postdoctoral associate, Commonwealth Cyber Initiative

“In the ACWA lab, I enjoy developing water topologies (line, star, and bus) and mounting sensors on them. It was a unique and required experience for me as a postdoctoral associate. This lab provides a platform for conducting different water and soil experiments, which are otherwise very expensive and complex. The development of this lab was needed, especially considering the lack of data availability for AI advancement in water and agriculture domains. Using this lab, researchers can simulate different water distribution and soil experiments and understand the chemicals' effects while collecting real-time data. This data can be further used to develop AI techniques for essential applications such as soft sensors, anomaly detection, and data poisoning.”

Siam Maksud, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Biological Systems Engineering

“What I found most rewarding about my time in the lab was the collaborative spirit among my colleagues and our efforts to create a practical water distribution system. Our lab effectively integrates IoT with automated data production within this distribution framework. As we delve into the study of such cyber-physical systems, our lab produces an extensive range of data that can be harnessed for AI-driven experiments and for understanding cyber threats. This stands to benefit researchers, globally.”

Chhayly Sreng, master’s candidate in computer engineeringBradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

“With the ACWA lab test bed being built, I am very enthusiastic about the possibilities it can address, including critical challenges in the water sector using our cutting-edge technology. I have enjoyed the collaborative and innovative environment it provides. The diverse expertise and perspectives within the lab have allowed me to engage in meaningful discussions and research that span the intersection of computer engineering, AI, and water systems. This synergy of ideas and resources has been truly inspiring and has significantly enriched my academic journey.

"I firmly believe it has the potential to play an important role in addressing water-related challenges globally. By serving as a testbed for AI solutions in water systems, we can develop and validate innovative technologies that hold the promise of resolving issues related to water quality, cyber-physical security, and agriculture. I am genuinely excited about the positive contributions we can make to the water sector and beyond.”

Justice Lin, master’s candidate in computer engineering, Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

“What I have most enjoyed about my experience in this lab is the opportunity to engage in every phase of the process, starting from the ground up with the establishment of the lab, to conducting experiments. Witnessing our hard work pay off and having the privilege of working alongside a dedicated and supportive team has been truly rewarding.

"I hope this lab makes a significant impact on the world by introducing a revolutionary approach that combines AI, cyber, water, agriculture, and data in the scientific field. Ultimately, leading to positive changes in resource management and improving the lives of individuals.”

Reilly Oare, undergraduate researcher, Department of Biological Systems Engineering

“During my time in the ACWA lab, I found it very fulfilling to work in uncharted territory. The possibilities for research were endless, and it was thrilling to delve into the intricacies that I wouldn't have otherwise encountered.

"What I'm most excited about is the potential impact the ACWA lab can have on data availability for the water sector. In our field, it can be difficult to gather reliable, unbiased data. By providing consistent experimental results, we can develop more accurate models that can benefit scientists and citizens alike.”

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