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Age of Drones

We’ve heard of suggested ways to bring down unauthorised drones – trained predator birds, nets, even laser guns and cannons; physical methods that however can cause a drone to crash and in so doing harm people or the very site you are trying to protect. Yet the greatest challenge stemming from allowing drones to fly in populated areas is detecting the drone’s purpose; an academic paper put it this way; how to tell if a drone is delivering pizza to you, or trying to take pictures of you in the shower?!

The December 2018 Gatwick incident that meant 1000 cancelled flights affecting well over 100,000 people is probably the most famous drone airport incident; however there are dozens of reported near-miss incidents involving drones all around the world, and recently such incidents have begun to be reported on weekly and monthly basis. That’s according to a study on “Security and Privacy Challenges in the Age of Drones”. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Fujitsu System Integration Laboratories Ltd researchers evaluated 200 academic and industry techniques designed to detect and disable drones flying.

As their paper points out, anti-drone tech is becoming a billion-dollar market. Commercial drones are in use for smuggling due to their flight range, size, speed, and carrying capabilities, typically into prisons. They could also be used for ‘terrorism by joystick’ to carry payloads or create terror by the fear of such a drone as weapon. Drones can also provide a means of carrying a surveillance device. Several studies have shown that drones with radio transceivers can be used for locating and tracking people. A drone supports HD camera resolutions that enable a pilot to obtain high quality pictures and close-ups (by using the video camera’s zooming capabilities) that are captured by the drone, even when the drone is far from the target, such as a celebrity.

Commercial drones are programmed to avoid entering a no-fly area by automatically landing on the ground or returning to a user-defined home coordinate before entering such a zone. They contain an internal database of no-fly areas defined by polygons of GPS coordinates. The functionality that prevents drones from flying over no-fly areas prevents operators from accidentally entering a no-fly area; however, malicious operators can bypass this using counter mechanisms, sold online.

Radar can be used to detect and locate a drone in space. However, radar detection can be unreliable when adverse weather conditions affect the reflected wavelength, distorting the wave; and radar cannot tell a bird from a drone; hence ‘high false positive rates’. The report goes over other tech, such as RF scanners and spectrum analysers as primarily used to detect drone radio signatures; and acoustic and camera (optical) methods.

As academics found in many cases, detecting a drone is a major challenge, even for commercial drones whose radio, acoustic, and visual signatures are published or can be learned. An attacker that would like to exploit this fact to evade drone detection mechanisms may try to use a drone with a different signature by building his/her own drone or changing a drone’s signatures (visual and radio).

As for detecting a drone’s purpose; put another way, how to tell between a ‘foe drone’ (used to carry a bomb or to spy) and a ‘friend’ drone (used by a farmer to fertilise corps) if the two drones look identical? While the military have ways to tell friend from foe, a friend and a foe drone can be too near to each other at the same altitude and GPS location, the research paper points out.

And what of cyber attack – a hacker hijacks a drone or causes the drone to crash from a denial of service attack? The paper ends with a question; how to detect and locate the operator of a malicious drone given the fact that such malicious operators will not follow regulations, such as installing a form of identification on a drone or registering its unique identifier in a national database, even if a country has such regulations?

Comment

Ben Nassi is a Ph.D. student in BGU’s Department of Software and Information Systems Engineering (SISE) and a researcher at the BGU Cyber Security Research Center. He says: “The cutting-edge technology and decreasing drone prices made them accessible to individuals and organisations, but has created new threats and recently caused an increase in drone-related incidents. There are many difficulties that militaries, police departments, and governments are seeking to overcome, as it is a recognised threat to critical infrastructure, operations, and individuals.”


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