Improving the Security of Commercial Drones with a Better Wireless Network
By Don Gilbreath
In May 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began accepting requests for permission to operate drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commercially in the U.S. Now, more than 20 major industries currently use drones for a variety of jobs - including for aerial surveillance, infrastructure monitoring, or photography, although industries such as agriculture also employ them for tasks such as fertilizing and planting.
According to a report from the Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International (AUVSI), "The flood of commercial exemption requests to the FAA shows that a mature [UAV] commercial market is waiting to be unleashed." This potential market explosion is not without its hurdles, however. Commercial use of drones for tasks like surveillance and aerial photography/videography creates business efficiencies and new opportunities, but it's important to understand that drones carry inherent security risks.
Drones' Security Challenges
A drone connected to a network is essentially a flying computer, and thus is as hackable as any computer or smartphone. Many networks on which drones operate have low or no encryption. In 2013, a hacker demonstrated that his homemade drone could be used to hack into other drones in mid-flight and told Wired Magazine that he was able to do so because of insecure Wi-Fi connections.
Drones also can be infiltrated by malware such as Maldrone, which is designed specifically to hack into UAVs via Internet connections. The malware acts as a link, or proxy, between the drone and a wily hacker, who can pull information about the drone and use it to manipulate its navigation - meaning in the best-case scenario, the drone could veer off course or err in its tasks, and in the worst-case scenario, it could be used for cyber terrorism.
Even industrial drones are based on simplistic computing architectures that were not designed to be highly secure, much like IoT devices, making them vulnerable to even average-caliber hackers. Adversaries can use standard debug tools to circumvent the software and hack the drone to control it, preventing it from completing its tasks.
If the drone is running on a company's wireless network, the hacked drone can cause network interference, impacting business operations and the functionalities of sensors or smart devices.
Some drones collect and store data (such as video) locally, and this data is unencrypted in almost every case. If the drone crashes, anyone could access the memory element inside it and view this data. Additionally, an adversary can hack into the drone to see what data it is collecting or what tasks it is performing. A hacked drone can create a back door into a company's wireless network, threatening profitability and productivity. In the event of a data breach, the downtime incurred can cost millions in lost productivity and damage a business's relationship with its customers. Adversaries also can obtain access to proprietary information or intellectual property, allowing competitors to access trade secrets.
There are networks that are able to overcome these challenges, however - the wide-scale implementation of which could allow the commercial drone market to reach its full potential.
A Network Made for Drones
Kinetic mesh wireless networks emerged in the wake of 9/11 in response to the communications failures emergency personnel and families experienced that day. These networks have been deployed in such rugged environments as mining, military, oil and gas, and public safety, and, applied to drones, would help overcome the challenges with current UAS communications protocols because it is highly secure.
Kinetic mesh gives a secure, private backbone on which to transmit data from a drone to a user or control center while also detecting and preventing tampering and allowing encryption for data security.
The network delivers end-to-end encryption, with 256-bit, military-grade encryption. When encrypted information flows through the mesh and comes to another node, it stays encrypted all the way through, and is not decrypted until it is delivered to its final destination, ensuring privacy and security. Metadata also is encrypted; importantly, an attacker cannot analyze the traffic and see which nodes are communicating with other devices.
Additionally, at each hop in the network, kinetic mesh provides a per-hop authentication for each packet. This detects whether data has been tampered with while ensuring a packet of information received by a node came from a trusted peer. This authentication protects against packet-injection cyber-attacks, preventing would-be attackers from "throwing" packets in to disrupt traffic.
The hacker drone Skyjack employs this method: Using Wi-Fi to detect other drones in its range, it injects Wi-Fi packets into the victim drone's connection, making it de-authenticate from its remote controller (usually a smartphone) and authenticate in its place, taking it under control. Kinetic mesh prevents such packet-injection attacks.
This type of network solves other challenges of network connectivity for drones as well, such as lack of scalability.
For many networks, the more devices operating on a single network, the spottier the connection becomes - not an option for critical-infrastructure industries like mining or oil and gas using drones to carry out mission-critical tasks while concurrent applications eat up the same network's bandwidth.
In kinetic mesh, because there is no central control node, routes are built automatically. This allows the network to adapt to node location, local interference and congestion dynamically, despite conditions that would cripple other networks.
A kinetic mesh network can be easily redeployed and expanded in multiple ways, while still operating with the same level of reliability. While traditional mesh networks degrade as more nodes are added, kinetic mesh grows stronger with each additional node. The nodes self-configure, making it simple to expand the network.
Lack of mobile connectivity can hinder drones as well. Many are designed to use a wireless connection to communicate with the pilot or command center, and once they are out of range, connectivity is lost. Because these "non-payload" connections are part of fixed infrastructure like cell towers and routers, they are static; they cannot move with the drone. The drone remains tied to a single access point and is unable to move beyond that network's range.
While a drone operating off a standard network is bound to static infrastructure like mounted access points, towers or wireless routers, even though the drones are always on the go, in a kinetic mesh network, everything is constantly moving - including the infrastructure, allowing an expansive network footprint that functions even in dynamic application such as drones.
In a kinetic mesh network, multiple, redundant radio frequencies and any-node-to-any-node capabilities are deployed to continuously and instantly route data via the best-available path and frequency, even over dozens of nodes. If part of the network becomes congested or receives interference, the network instantaneously reroutes around any failure, keeping the drones in the air and on task.
A Bright Future
The global commercial drone market size was estimated at $552 million in 2014 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16.9 percent by 2022. AUVSI has estimated that the economic impact of commercial drones in the United States alone will be $82 billion by 2025. There is huge potential for industries such as offshore oil and gas, real estate, mining and agriculture to become more efficient and intelligent by using autonomous and remote-controlled drones - but there are still obstacles to overcome.
The Federal Aviation Administration is creating new laws to help defend against malevolent drones, but nothing is standardized at this time. Security executives can help protect their companies by ensuring drones utilize a hyper-secure wireless network that includes role-based access; more than one admin account to manage the network devices' security configurations; encryption and authentication protocols; and secured key distribution. This will minimize the risks of being hacked and ensure the drones stay on task and secure.
Employing a kinetic mesh network to operate aerial drones provides the security, scalability and mobility that standard networks cannot deliver. Its capabilities can power the future success of commercial drones, opening up new possibilities for industry.