Imagine your drone being hacked into and stolen while in mid flight. Your drone just starts to fly away from you. After you run to see where it has gone, your cannot find it. It has just disappeared. Or just as bad, you lose control of your drone and it crashes. You blame your piloting skills or electric interference from a telephone mast. But the problem is, your drone has been hacked into.
Drones are very much like flying computers. They have operating systems, network connections and hardware which all have programmed code. So in many ways a drone is just as easy to hack into as a computer.
Someone that can hack into a computer can hack into a drone. They just have to make the connection to either your remote controller (cellphone, tablet, laptop) or to the drone by intercepting the signal. But there are ways you can secure your drone from hackers.
For this article, I have brought in Isa Cox who is a network and internet security expert. Isa is a top mum, blogger, and writes passionately about internet security whether it is at home, business or in the new fields of consumer drones.
How to Keep Your Drone Secure From Hackers
By Isa Cox from Secure Thoughts
For those of us who grew up with remote controlled RC cars and other such toys, the most logical step as an adult has become the humble drone. Once exclusively the master spy in the sky, these little gizmos have quickly gained popularity with consumers and business with some terrific uses of drones.
As you’ve probably guessed, there’s always someone around to spoil everyone else’s fun. This industry is still young but it hasn’t taken long for criminals to hack into drones and begin using them for their own nefarious purposes.
Remember a few years ago when Iran allegedly acquired a US drone? It was no mistake. Hackers used a form of spoofing to help change the drone’s path and steer it to a location of their choice. These attacks are coming from a variety of sources and targeting more than just military drones.
But what about your drone? Though privately-operated drones are considerably lower priority targets, there’s still a distinct possibility yours could get hacked and wind up helping commit crimes, such as delivering illegal goods or spying. Some of the required protection you’ll need is a matter of better built drones, but there are still a few things you can do to help protect your drone from being commandeered by errant hackers.
Protect Your Ground Controller
If you’re controlling your drone via a computer, tablet or mobile device, it’s absolutely essential to maintain a malware-free environment. Should you lose control of your machine, it could mean catastrophic results. A drone crashing from any height could cause serious damage and could even end someone’s life.
It has already happened to the US military where one of their computers was being used as the drone ground station while at the same time, they installed games on the computer. This computer became infected with malware and allowed the drone to be hacked into.
Thankfully, malware is something you have a lot of control over. Two services will be instrumental in protecting your controlling device.
Antivirus And VPN For Ground Station Protection
The first is an anti-virus program. You may already be familiar with these, as they’re typically part of the default software on PCs. But if, for instance, you’re using a tablet or cellphone to fly your drone, you still need antivirus, as they can easily become infected.
You can find free anti-virus programs from developers such as Avast or AVG. They’ll help keep infections from causing problems when piloting your drone. You can find AVG for Android on Google Play. It provides real-time antivirus and anti-theft protection for your device. There is also versions for iPhone as well as similar protection from other providers.
Now there are other problems which exist and are best handled by a second type of program.
By subscribing to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service, you can protect your device’s internet connection and keep hackers from getting in. In simple terms, a VPN acts as a gateway between you and the internet. Once you’re connected to the remote server, your connection becomes encrypted and your internet usage anonymous.
This is absolutely crucial because an unsecured internet connection is one of the easiest points to infect your devices with malware. Worse yet, a hacker can even take direct control of your machine, potentially stealing your drone directly.
For more information about VPNs and where you can get one, read this VPN guide.
Protecting Your Drone With Personal Behavior Change
Recent drone hacks have taught us at least something about how hackers can gain control of drones. By spoofing fake GPS coordinates, they can crash or re-direct a drone. But to do so, hackers first need to establish some sort of connection with the drone.
This is best shown off by Samy Kamkar, who designed a drone he calls SkyJack to hack and control other drones. Essentially the drone seeks out and intercepts your wireless connection to the drone and replaces it with its own.
The best way to avoid this, outside of waiting for better drones, is to monitor the location of your own and vary your flight paths. Consistent paths may be used to learn where your drone will be and make it an easy target. Keeping your drone in view will also let you know if something is going wrong.
Drones Protected With seL4 OS
While the source code is available, you’ll be hard pressed to actually find a drone with the seL4 operating system. That’s because its still largely in development. However, it is poised to be the industry standard for any devices that connect to the net and control functions as part of what has been dubbed the “Internet of Things.”
In simple terms, this kernel, or operating system, isolates the varying functions of the device it is installed on. It is important for drones because it will prevent the entire system from being compromised, even if a hacker manages to get part of the way in. Think of it as locking the cockpit; even if the rest of the plane is taken, the pilot (in this case the basic operating software) is still safe.
Currently Boeing is testing seL4 and also the US military. We can expect to see this type of OS become more widely available within the next two years.
Better And More Secure Drones
Outside of what’s already been recommended, there isn’t a whole lot else you can really do to protect your drone other than building your own. As the market is still young, there are plenty of bugs and exploits available to cause you headaches.
This just means it is a perfect time for hackers to stir up trouble. If possible, try to avoid Parrot 2.0 drones if you’re worried about SkyJack, as it specifically targets drones using their MAC addresses.
Consider flying your drone in more remote spaces where there is less technology. Hacking a drone requires a certain degree of proximity unless the hack is done over the device sending orders, so you’ll get better results flying when there’s no one else around.
For the moment though, rest easy knowing that your drone is probably not a high-priority target. Unless your drone can fire missiles or is carrying high-value packages, most hackers probably won’t take much interest.
To finish, watch this video of SkyJack which is a drone engineered to seek, connect and hack using wireless into drones within WiFi range.