Physical-Layer Attacks Against Pulse Width Modulation-Controlled Actuators


Gökçen Yılmaz Dayanıklı, Qualcomm; Sourav Sinha, Virginia Tech; Devaprakash Muniraj, IIT Madras; Ryan M. Gerdes and Mazen Farhood, Virginia Tech; Mani Mina, Iowa State University


Cyber-physical systems (CPS) consist of integrated computational and physical components. The dynamics of physical components (e.g., a robot arm) are controlled by actuators via actuation signals. In this work, we analyze the extent to which intentional electromagnetic interference (IEMI) allows an attacker to alter the actuation signal to jam or control a class of widely used actuators: those that use pulse width modulation (PWM) to encode actuation data (e.g., rotation angle or speed). A theory of False Actuation Injection (FAI) is developed and experimentally validated with IEMI waveforms of certain frequencies and modulations.

Specifically, three attack waveforms, denoted as Block, Block & Rotate, and Full Control, are described that can be utilized by an attacker to block (denial of service) or alter the actuation data encoded in the PWM signal sent by an actuator's legitimate controller. The efficacy of the attack waveforms is evaluated against several PWM-controlled actuators, and it is observed that an attacker can implement denial-of-service attacks on all the tested actuators with Block waveform. Additionally, attackers can take control of servo motors from specific manufacturers (Futaba and HiTec) with reported Block & Rotate, and Full Control waveforms. A coupling model between the attack apparatus and victim PWM-based control system is presented to show that the attacker can utilize magnetic, resonant coupling to mount attacks at an appreciable distance. Indoor and in-flight attacks are demonstrated on the actuators of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the effects of which are shown to seriously impact the safe operation of said UAV, e.g., change in the flight trajectory. Additionally, the denial of service attacks are demonstrated on other actuators such as DC motors, the rotational speed of which is controlled with PWM, and possible countermeasures (such as optical actuation data transmission) are discussed.

Open Access Media

USENIX is committed to Open Access to the research presented at our events. Papers and proceedings are freely available to everyone once the event begins. Any video, audio, and/or slides that are posted after the event are also free and open to everyone. Support USENIX and our commitment to Open Access.

@inproceedings {280018,
title = {{Physical-Layer} Attacks Against Pulse Width {Modulation-Controlled} Actuators},
booktitle = {31st USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 22)},
year = {2022},
address = {Boston, MA},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug,