Hacker drone story a cautionary tale about the need for unmanned vehicle data security

By John Keller
Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 10 Dec. 2013. Saw a fascinating, yet questionably accurate story the other day about designs for an inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV ) for hobbyists that may have the ability to hunt, hack , and take over other UAVs.

"Serial hacker Samy Kamkar has released all the hardware and software specifications that hobbyists need to build an aerial drone that seeks out other drones in the air, hacks them, and turns them into a conscripted army of unmanned vehicles under the attacker's control," reads the story by Dan Goodin on Ars Technica entitled Flying hacker contraption hunts other drones, turns them into zombies .

No, I'm not kidding, because I couldn't make this stuff up. I doubt, quite frankly, that a hobbyist's helicopter model drone could hunt down and hijack a wide variety of UAVs out there, but that's beside the point.

he actual capabilities of such a predator drone aside, I see this as a cautionary tale not only about the dire and growing need for information security, but also about the potential havoc that a proliferation of small drones could have on the commercial aviation industry.

I mean, what if it's true there's a hunter drone out there that can take over whatever UAVs it encounters? If a recreational hacker can dream it up, so can scientists in some of the world's more sophisticated militaries.

  If there's a UAV out there that could hijack a future fleet of Amazon delivery drones -- remote as the possibility actually is -- then isn't it likely that military forces not-so-friendly to the U.S. have such technology today that could hunt down and take control of the nation's growing fleet of surveillance and attack UAVs?

Maybe it's already happened when a sophisticated American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel UAV was captured two years ago by Iranian forces in northeastern Iran. The Iranian government announced that the UAV was brought down by its cyberwarfare unit which commandeered the aircraft and safely landed it.

It's clear that unmanned vehicles need better information security. Now that hobbyists might be posing some kind of threat, perhaps military leaders will start taking this seriously.

And while we're on the subject of taking things seriously, how is the FAA going to handle the proliferation of small UAVs operated by everyone from local police departments to retailers? I'm hoping it doesn't take a collision involving a UAV and a passenger jetliner to bring this looming problem into focus.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

December 2013
Volume 24, Issue 12
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