Inspecting the security of collaborative robots through their hardware architectures.
Robotics is the art of system integration . Building a robot requires one to carefully select components that exchange information across networks while meeting timing deadlines. In a way, a robot is a network of networks. One that comprises sensors to read the world, actuators to produce a physical change, and dedicated computational resources to process it all and respond coherently, in time, and according to its application. Roboticists often conceive the robot not as one of its parts, but as the complete system including all of its components, whether they are assembled under the same structure or physically distributed. In the case of a robotic manipulator, these robots are often presented physically distributed and include the robot arm mechanics (which generally include actuators and sensors), the HMI or teach pendant, the controller (the main compute substrate for reasoning), and any additional safety mechanism related to the robot operation. The robotic system is thereby the composition of all these sub-systems and networks.
a robot is a network of networks. One that comprises sensors to read the world, actuators to produce a physical change, and dedicated computational resources to process it all and respond coherently, in time, and according to its application.
Under such system integration complexity, it is not uncommon for one of the robot sub-components to fail over time, often leading to the complete system malfunction. Given the high price point of robots, it is reasonable to consider the need for repairing these machines, often replacing individual faulty components for continued operation, or simply for re-purposing them. The European Commission (EC) showed early interest on this topic in a report by  evaluating different scoring systems for repairing and upgrading different consumer-oriented products, including robots. More recently, and as part of the Circular Economy Action Plan , the EC has shown commitment towards establishing a new Right to Repair in the context of reviewing directive 2019/771. Hatta  summarizes major events in the U.S. with regard the Right to Repair and highlights that it wasn't until 2012 that the Automotive Right to Repair passed in Massachussets, empowering customers with tools to fight planned obsolescence. Hatta summarizes how material obsolescence works:
- Making items difficult to repair (by raising the cost of repair, requiring special tools, etc.)
- Failing to provide information (for instance, manuals are not provided)
- Systematic obsolescence (making parts among models incompatible or making it impossible to fix newer models with parts from the older models)
- Numbering (frequently changing the model numbers to make it psychologically less attractive to use old models)
- Legal approaches (prohibiting access and modification to the internal structure of products by means of copyrights and patents)
Hatta [4:1] noticed that, similar to Ford in the 1920s, most robot manufacturers follow several of these practices nowadays and organize dealers (often called distributors) or approved system integrators into private networks, providing repair parts only to certified companies in an attempt to discourage repairs and evade competition.
Amongst the most recent examples we observe an interesting development from Teradyne, where two of its owned robotics companies (Universal Robots and Mobile Industrial Robots), follow these practices. The case of Teradyne is of special interest because its robots are advertised as collaborative, that is: designed to augment human capabilities by closely (physically) cooperating without causing any harm. Past research however hints that the lack of security measures in these robots leads to safety hazards, as concluded by Alzola et al. .
Amongst the most recent examples we observe an interesting development from Teradyne, where two of its owned robotics companies (Universal Robots and Mobile Industrial Robots), follow these obsolescence practices.
Cybersecurity in robotics is still on its early stages. Therefore, as in many other fields, it remains addressed mostly in disconnected silos. With most efforts concentrated in IT, hardware security in robotics has received very limited attention. Building secure robots, however, demands consideration throughout domains (hardware, firmware, OS, application, network, cloud, etc.)
A teardown is the process of taking apart a product to understand how it is made and works. More formally, it is the approach to modeling the functional behavior and physical components of a product. Robot teardown is thereby the process to study robot hardware architectures through systematic disassembly to understand how the robot works and what physical sub-systems compose it.
Robot teardown is the process to study robot hardware architectures through systematic disassembly to understand how the robot works and what physical sub-systems compose it.
The motivation behind teardowns is three-fold: a) dissection and analysis to evaluate the status of a product, b) competitive benchmarking against similar products, and c) gain engineering experience and knowledge.
Read more about robot teardown at https://aliasrobotics.com/robot-teardown.php.
Mayoral-Vilches, V., Hernández, A., Kojcev, R., Muguruza, I., Zamalloa, I., Bilbao, A., & Usategi, L. (2017). The shift in the robotics paradigm—the hardware robot operating system (h-ros); an infrastructure to create interoperable robot components. In Adaptive hardware and systems (ahs), 2017 nasa/esa conference on(pp. 229–236). ↩︎
Cordella, M., Alfieri, F., & Sanfelix, J. (2019). Analysis and development of a scoring system for repair and upgrade of products-final report. ↩︎
Publications Office of the European Union Luxembourg.for Communication (European Commission), D.-G. (2020). Circular economy action plan, for a cleaner and more competitive europe. Publications Office of the European Union Luxembourg. doi: 10.2779/05068 ↩︎
Alzola Kirschgens, L., Zamalloa Ugarte, I., Gil Uriarte, E., Muñiz Rosas, A., & Mayoral-Vilches, V. (2018, June). Robot hazards: from safety to security. ArXiv e-prints. ↩︎