Hacked unmanned vehicles pose a threat for the military

US army drone

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles, are now a vital part of defense force capability, from intelligence collecting to unmanned encounter in military operations. But what happens if our own technology is reversed against us?

Between 2015 and 2022, the global commercial drone trade is anticipated to grow from A$5.95 billion to A$7.47 billion.

Drones are now being used in a range of applications, including media, agriculture, parcel delivery, and defence.

However, as with all IT technology, users and manufacturers may leave the digital doors unlocked. This possibly leaves opportunities for cyber-criminals and maybe even cyber-warfare.

Picture a defence operation in which a drone is directed to watch on enemy territory. The enemy recognizes the drone but instead of deactivating it, compromises the sensors (sonar, vision, sonar, etc) to introduce false data. Acting upon such information could then result in unsuitable tactics and, in a worst-case scenario, may even lead to unnecessary casualties.

UK cybersecurity consultant James Dale cautioned earlier this year that “equipment is now available to hack drones so they can dodge technology controls”.

Drones are comparatively cheap technologies for military use – definitely inexpensive than the use of satellites for surveillance. Off-the-shelf drones can be used to collect intelligence without any substantial development effort.

In the meantime, governments have cracked down on unlawful civilian drone use, and imposed no-fly zones around protected infrastructure such as airports. Drone manufacturers have been required to provide “geofencing” software to avoid circumstances such as the current drone strike in a Saudi oil field. Nevertheless, cybercriminals are intelligent enough to dodge such controls and openly provide services to help customers get past government and military-enforced no-fly zones.

Russian software company Coptersafe retails such alterations for a few hundred dollars. Anyone can buy a drone from a wholesale store, buy the modifications, and then send their drone into no-fly zones such as airports and military bases. Oddly, Russia’s military base in Syria came under attack from drones previous year.

Read Russia Unveils Next-Gen Kamikaze Drones

Australia on the frontline

Australia is at the leading edge of the military drone revolution, arming itself with a fleet of hundreds of new drones. Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce, talking over the program in a current defence podcast, stated Australia would shortly be “the most unmanned [air vehicle] army in the world per capita”.

It will be vital to protect every single element of this refined cybercrime aerial fleet from cyber attack.

When drones were made, cyber security was not a main concern. Let’s discover a few potential threats to drone technology:

  • drone navigation is built on the Global Positioning System (GPS). It’s likely an attacker can stop the encryption of this communication channel. Fake signals can be fed to the aimed drone and the drone successfully gets lost. This type of attack can be initiated without being in close physical closeness
  • with information of the flight controller systems, hackers can gain entree using “brute force” attacks. Then, the captured video footage can be controlled to deceive the operator and change ground operations
  • a drone equipped with sensors could be influenced by introducing rogue signals. For instance, the gyroscopes on a drone can be misguided using an outside source of audio energy. Cybercriminals may take advantage of this design trait to make false sensor readings
  • drones’ onboard control systems are effectively miniature computers. Drone control systems ( ground-based and onboard controllers) are also susceptible to malicious software or Maldrone (malware for drones). The CTO and founder of CloudSEK, Rahul Sasi discovered a backdoor in the Parrot AR.Drone. Using malicious software, an attacker can form remote communication and can take control of the drone. Attackers can also introduce false data to mislead the operatives. This type of malware can be installed noiselessly without any noticeable sign to the operators. The outcomes are significant if the drones are used for military actions.

Similar to traditional cybercrime, 2019 will likely see a sharp rise in drone-related occurrences. However, these security breaches should not inhibit the use of drones for personal, military or industrial applications. Drones are great tools in the age of smart cities, for instance.

But we should not overlook the potential for cyber crime – and nowhere are the risks higher than in military drone use. Undoubtedly, the use of drones needs to be carefully controlled. And the initial step is for the government and the Australian Defence Force to be fully aware of the dangers.


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