Student hacks professional drone

| Paul de Kuyper

Professional drones, which can be used by the police for surveillance and border control, can easily be hacked. To solve the problem, hardware should be changed, states Nils Rodday in his master thesis.

Photo by: Gijs van Ouwerkerk

It is known for a while that cheaper ‘recreational’ drones from 100 to 500 euros can easily be hacked, says computer science student Nils Rodday. ‘I have shown that it is also simple to take over the control of professional drones, which cost 20 to 25 thousand euros.’

UT scientist Ricardo de Oliveira Schmidt supervised Rodday’s master thesis, which he defended last month. He calls the findings of his student ‘a huge problem, that can’t be solved easily.’

Interception of communication

The manufacturer of the professional drone asked Rodday to examine the security of their product, as part of his internship at KPMG. It seemed not secure at all, the student concluded. His supervisor: ‘Nils could easily intercept the communication between the controller and the drone. He could even give commands as if he were the controller. That was possible from a distance up to two kilometres from the drone.’

The main weakness is the communication chip used for all radio communication. Next to that there are some smaller – but not less crucial – bugs, explains De Oliveira Schmidt.

Not just anyone will be able to hijack the drone, says Rodday. ‘However, for students in electrical engineering or computer science who have read my thesis, it wouldn’t be that difficult to hack the chip and to take over the control.’

‘Very dangerous’

According to De Oliveria Schmidt it is ‘very dangerous’ that a not so insecure chip like this one is built in expensive drones for professional applications. In several countries the police buy the drones Rodday examined. They are used for surveillance and border control, for example.

The computer science student examined only one drone from a single brand, but he knows other professional drones have the same vulnerable chips as well. The researchers won’t publish the name of the manufacturer that provided the drone. They signed a confidentiality agreement with the company.

Change hardware

There is no simple solution to solve the weaknesses of the drone, Rodday and De Oliveira Schmidt explain. The supervisor: ‘A software upgrade is not sufficient. You need to change the hardware, and that’s only possible if you recall all the drones you sold. That’s quite something.’

Nils Rodday and Ricardo de Oliveira Schmidt plan to publish the security leaks of the drone in an upcoming scientific conference. They also hope to give a speech about their research at a congress about security.

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