ECU’s Robinson gets hands dirty with John Deere Cyber Tractor Challenge

East Carolina University sophomore Cole Robinson got his hands dirty as one of just 20 students across the country selected to participate in the Cyber Tractor Challenge hosted by John Deere.

Cole Robinson holds up the coin he received for participating in John Deere’s Cyber Tractor Challenge. (Contributed photo)

Robinson spent five days last month outside Des Moines, Iowa, where he took cybersecurity classes, assessed real equipment, networked with engineers and learned about hardware security.

“For me, the most interesting part of the event was when we were using CAN (Controller Area Network) tools to spoof CAN messages. CAN is like the brain of modern vehicles,” he said. “There were other times where tools like Wireshark were used to assess certain parts of the devices. … This was the first time I’ve worked with CAN Bus, so it was surprising to see everything it’s used for and what happens when the messages are spoofed.”

Robinson, of Clayton, is an information and computer technology major with a concentration in cybersecurity in the Department of Technology Systems. He has been a member of several ECU teams that have participated in cybersecurity competitions, including one that placed in the top 3% of the country in a National Cyber League event and another that placed fourth in a statewide competition. He was also part of the ECU team that competed in the first Centers of Academic Excellence National Security Agency Cyber Exercise (CAE-NCX) competition.

Beyond learning about cybersecurity, Robinson said he gained new perspective about the company during the event.

“We had the chance to learn about John Deere as a company as well and how their focus on consumer experience has evolved to very sophisticated technology over their many years in business,” he said. “The threat landscape of companies that focus on agriculture isn’t something I’ve thought about, but now I’ve been shown that this industry definitely does have one that calls for a very professional team to handle it, and that really made me think about how industries that could be considered shinier targets are coping during this period.”

Robinson said he enjoyed the experience and learned a lot.

“John Deere really made every aspect of the event enjoyable, so I’d definitely apply again and apply for future events similar to this,” he said. “Overall, I’m glad I went. It gave me many new useful ways of thinking that I will bring back to ECU.”