What are Cyber Physical Systems?

The emergence of Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) represents a significant leap in the way we interact with our environment. But what exactly are cyber physical systems?

While cyber and physical systems were once clearly distinct, the line between the two is increasingly blurred. Cyber Physical Systems integrate computing, networking, and physical processes. The system (applications, computers and networks) monitor and control physical processes, with a feedback loop where the physical processes and equipment inform the system that pilot them.

Other terms have been used to refer to CPS in industrial environments: Operational Technology (OT), or ICS (Industrial Control Systems). Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) is the term used for ruggedized computers adapted for the control of manufacturing processes. The words “Cyber Physical Systems” speak more specifically to the increasingly network-connected nature of equipment and devices in operational environments.

CPS are all around us:

CPS are integral to the operation of many critical sectors:

  • Smart Energy Grid: Power networks use information and communication technology to manage electricity transmission and distribution in a reliable and efficient manner.
  • Smart Manufacturing use robots and robotic systems: Machines controlled by computers and programs perform repetitive tasks faster than humans and with much more precision.
  • Smart Buildings: Data center facilities, power production sites, warehouses, and any structures are equipped with systems to secure the facility and adapt to the behaviors of the occupants – human or machines - optimizing energy consumption and comfort.
  • Transportation: Railroads and airports integrate numerous connected devices and systems to ensure security, reliability and real-time supervision.

CPS are also increasingly being used in consumer-oriented sectors and for personal use: autonomous vehicle systems, medical monitoring, smart homes are great examples.

These cyber physical systems are at the core of the critical services that underpin our lives—our water, electricity, banking, communications, air traffic, and much more.

The 'cyber' component of CPS is what pilots its physical aspect: computer systems and applications control the actions operated by equipment, devices, or sensors which represent the ‘physical’ component of CPS. Data and communication flows between the two and even other systems that take data as input into their own processes.

The Benefits of CPS

CPS are proven to deliver numerous benefits, including:

  • Increased Productivity: Machines and robots perform consistently at any time of the day and can optimize resources in systems like energy grids.
  • Safety and Reliability: CPS can make processes more dependable, ensuring continuous operation through autonomy and intelligence.
  • Real-time Monitoring and Responsiveness: CPS react and adapt to changes in the environment in real-time and can report and alert in case of malfunction.
  • Automatic Data Collection and Feedback Loop: CPS have become instrumental in data collection to understand usage pattern and drive process improvements even further.

Cybersecurity Challenges faced by CPS

CPS rarely work independently. They are typically connected to systems and applications including IT systems through IP networks. They can also be connected to third parties for monitoring, maintenance and supervision. Therefore, CPS are as vulnerable to cyber threats as any other systems and are increasingly being targeted by threat actors, including state-sponsor actors because of the critical role they play in the economy.

Securing CPS and the Digital Revolution

CPS are integrated more and more into the modern fabric of the global economy and our daily lives. Because of the benefits they provide, CPS have the potential to revolutionize many sectors and will continue to expand to make smart cities, intelligent transportation, and ‘connected everything’ a reality. CPS are entirely part of the digital revolution that every business faces.

In light of the numerous state-sponsored attacks reported against critical infrastructures, stakeholders in industrial sectors relying on CPS are now required to double down on cybersecurity. New regulation, executive orders require such entity to monitor their cyber risk and report on the management and governance of cyber risks attached to CPS.