Through the air, in the sea and on land (even space) the drones are here so you'd better get used to it.
When word got out that researchers at the University of Texas hacked an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in front of the Department of Homeland Security on June 19, 2012, people were rightfully unnerved. Predator drones are well-known for their precision strikes on military targets in the Middle East, not to mention the amounts of intelligence they have gathered. Use of drones has protected troops and limited the amount of brute force necessary to destroy planned targets.
But what if, over civilian airspace some nefarious entities gained control of a Predator drone armed with their Hellfire missiles? That would be bad news. The good news is that the researches at the University of Texas Radionavigation Laboratory hacked one of their own—the Adaptive Flight Hornet Mini.
We've been using drones for years in order to explore areas where humans cannot venture. Tethered ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) have been used by the U.S. Navy since the 1960s. Shipwrecks have been explored, warheads have been recovered and the abyss has been charted with ROVs.
Military success demonstrates that they have potential for domestic law enforcement and translates into stateside adoption. Law enforcement agencies are already using UAVs for border patrol and to track fugitives.
The method the University of Texas team used to gain control of the UAV was known as "GPS spoofing." This is an indirect method of fooling the UAV's GPS and feeding the craft a bogus signal
that can redirect the vehicle, throwing it off of its target so that it is likely to crash. This scenario is not quite as terrifying as it could be, given that this was the University of Texas' own creation. A small, garbage can-sized drone, it wouldn't do that much damage. It isn't even armed.
"The way to stay secure is to stay a few steps ahead of attackers," explains David Wentzloff,
assistant professor, EECS. "I have to imagine GPS could use an update,
but it's a matter of time before attackers could catch up.
New radios with antenna arrays
and directional capability could
help by ignoring signals originating
from Earth, where a spoofing signal would
come from. This would be on the receiver side,
to help counter spoofing. But anything running
software that has an external interface
(e.g. Ethernet, keyboard, GPS) is potentially
vulnerable through that port. If you can
protect or limit what can be done
through these ports, you can make
it secure and minimize
the risk of hacking."
At the moment, the domestic controversy surrounding drones is centered on privacy. Manufacturers ramp up production while advocates and legislators like Rand Paul (R-KY) seek to limit their use.
By 2020, 30,000 drones could be in the skies above America, reports The Washington Times. This figure seems startlingly high if discussing law enforcement and homeland military activity.
Naturally regulations will be put in place and the budgets for local agencies are often limited. But what about your neighbor's drone?
(Do It Yourself)
DIY drone kits are getting more capable, cheaper and more common every day. For under $200 you could be flying a drone over your house right now, provided you keep it under 400 feet. For hobbyists and researchers the applications of these drones are as important as remote sensing and as benign as filming commercial or amateur videos.
Looking toward the future, researchers at U-M's Naval Engineering Education Center have been experimenting with autonomous vehicles. Unlike tethered or remotely piloted vehicles, these creations can operate on their own. And they are not susceptible to GPS spoofing.
"What we are trying to do is land an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle on the deck of a Navy ship that will be moving at sea," says Ryan Eustice, assistant professor NAME and director, Perceptual Robotics Laboratory. "Current UASs use GPS, which can be jammed. Our solution is more focused on how the camera collects data, which could be of value to the Navy."
Some of our brightest minds are trying to stay one step ahead of would-be hackers. Drones guided by visual data may, as Eustice hopes, counter GPS spoofing but any operating system can be hacked. Hacked or not, any time something of enough mass is airborne it is a potential missile.
On June 11, 2012, a U.S. Navy Global Hawk drone with a 44-foot wingspan slammed into an unpopulated Maryland shoreline, leaving behind fiery wreckage and no casualties. But it was a stern warning.
Even though this UAV was reportedly not hacked, was unarmed and crashed due to mechanical failure, the question people ask is, "What if that thing was flying over a populated area when the mechanical problem occurred?"
Extreme innovation usually breeds controversy — Pandora's box of drones was opened a long time ago. And the question for engineers is "How safe can we make them?"
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