Cyber attacks on drones


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The number of missions unmanned systems are tasked with, as well as their diversity, is expanding each year. The roles they play include a wide range of missions, such as intelligence gathering, analysis, storage and dissemination. Movement of forces, weather conditions, images, statistics and so on are merely some of the types of data unmanned systems are capable of processing. At the same time, securing the data association with the operation of unmanned systems has become one the most important fields in this area.

The importance of cyber security has become all the more apparent following the reports that Iran launched continuous cyber attacks against more than 50 different targets across 16 countries, including Israel, the US, India, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Germany, the UK and China. Researchers have found that in the course of the concerted cyber attack, hackers succeeded in gaining remote access and control of airport gates, as well as security control systems in South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

In addition, the attacks targeted major companies, government bodies, medical institutions and entities in charge of energy supply. This, coupled with the highly extraordinary incident in which two Iranian aircraft intercepted an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) back in 2011, the importance of this issue is rising.

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In recent years, the University of Virginia and the Georgia Institute of Technology have been working on exactly these technologies. With funding from the Defense Department, they experimented with information technology (IT) security these past few years. Back in October, both institutions showcased their so called System-Aware Cybersecurity.

The experiments conducted focused on four major aspects of unmanned systems’ data security; GPS-manipulation, system coordinates’ manipulation, critical meta-data manipulation, which enables image relay, and detection of any monitoring and surveillance equipment installed on the platform.

“Our research focuses on providing additional security by employing an onboard, secure monitoring subsystem to detect illogical behaviors relative to the expected profile of a system’s performance,” said Barry Horowitz, project leader and professor of systems and information engineering in U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Detections can serve to initiate automated recovery actions and to alert operators of the attack. The cybersecurity Sentinel system includes design features that allow it to be far more secure than the system it monitors.”

RQ-170 Sentinel UAS
RQ-170 Sentinel UAS

Following the success of the experiments, U.Va. recently licensed the technology to Mission Secure Inc., which is in the process of commercializing its security solutions for the military, intelligence and civil sectors.

Reportedly, during a ceremony held at Tehran on May 11 2014, Iran unveiled an RQ-170 drone allegedly manufactured by reverse-engineering of U.S. Sentinel drone captured in December 2011. The Lockheed Martin’s Sentinel UAV was showcased next to the one that crash landed for (still unclear reasons) in northeastern Iran about three years ago.