From drone to counter-drone: the evolving role of cybersecurity


Cybertechnology has always been a problem in the drone industry, but its reach is expanding and evolving in multiple dimensions. Traditional cybersecurity concerns in the drone world referred to either the vulnerability of drone data and operations to cyberattacks, or the role drones played in perpetrating the cyberattacks themselves.

But a new challenge has arisen, shifting the focus from the drone to the counter-drone. Cybersecurity techniques will play a central role in comprehensive and sophisticated drone defense programs that cover comprehensive, end-to-end detection and mitigation of rogue drone incidents.

Legitimate vulnerability of drones to cyberattacks

The vulnerability of drones to cyberattacks, such as when they are internal corporate drones or drones of external supply chain partners are hacked for nefarious purposes– has long been a concern. In 2011, an entire fleet of American unmanned aerial systems (UAS) was infected with a mysterious keylogger. In 2015, drug traffickers successfully hacked US surveillance drones at the US border so they can bypass them and smuggle contraband into the US

Hostile attacks

A Booz Allen Hamilton cybersecurity report highlighted the role external drones could play in corporate or government espionage, sabotage and surveillance: “Using drones as malicious Wi-Fi hotspots can be one of the most simplistic but effective in targeting individuals. Drones equipped with a device such as a Wi-Fi pineapple can be placed near a targeted business and used to collect credentials, perform man-in-the-middle attacks and perform network discovery. Even users connected to legitimate company hotspots could potentially be coerced into connecting to the drone’s Wi-Fi if the target’s network does not prevent forced de-authentications,” the report states.

The other side of the equation

Drones can be used to launch a number of types of attacks, including cyberattacks, terrorist attacks, collisions, smuggling, or surveillance. What type of drone defense should be deployed by organizations affected by any or all of these types of drone attacks?

Traditional battlefield counter-unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS) technologies have a role to play in a layered defense strategy, but they fall short in sensitive scenarios or urban environments. For example, the C-UAS radar often has problems when detecting when it is the main counter-drone component differentiating between small drones and other flying objects. Their operation is also complicated. Radar can generate false positives and C-UAS acoustic detection solutions are often ineffective in noisy environments, especially as drones become quieter. Optical sensing solutions are ineffective without a clear line of sight.

On the mitigation side, jamming-based C-UAS solutions or hybrid solutions with jammers for mitigation emit large amounts of energy to jam signals from drone controllers. Jammer-based tools can affect other radio communications, which could pose a threat to nearby broadcasts or security personnel. Jamming solutions do not provide full control, as drone operators can regain control of the drone once the jamming stops.

Kinetic C-UAS mitigation methods, which involve shooting down the small UAS (sUAS), are risky in densely populated areas or above crowds as they can cause collateral damage.

Cybersecurity against drones for a safer world

Cyberspace-based counter-drone techniques can be deployed as the centerpiece of a effective defense against hostile or dangerous drones engaging in attacks, smuggling or espionage. Cybernetic counter-drone methods can protect resources, protect civilians, and monitor our cities and streets.

How would that work? It helps to understand the components of a drone system. The ground control station that pilots the drone has two parts: the operator and the communication links. Meanwhile, the drone itself has a basic system, sensors, avionics, and communications links that talk to ground control. UAS contain a lot of data, most of which is potentially sensitive.

Cyberspace-based counter drone systems can detect and penetrate the unique communication signals used by commercial drones. Once detected, a cybersecurity system can extract drone identifiers for an identification: friend or foe (IFF) process that distinguishes between hostile and friendly drones. Such a system can also extract the position of the drone with GPS precision, including the take-off position near the pilot, in real time.

Emergent momentum

Leveraging cybersecurity as a cornerstone of a drone defense strategy is attracting industry attention because of the many advantages it offers over traditional concepts inherited from the military domain. In the not so distant future, our skies will be filled with drones. Pedro Pacheco, senior analyst director at Gartner, predicts that in five years there will be one million drones making deliveries. Drones are bringing tangible value and benefits to millions of people around the world and are reshaping the way modern societies work.

Cyberspace-based C-sUAS systems are unique in their ability to allow authorized drones to continue operating while hostile drones are detected and then mitigated (or repelled).

Continuity is also essential. C-UAS mitigation technologies based on jamming and/or kinetic mitigation have achieved limited success, but these methods are insufficient as a primary defense component. They are less suitable for sensitive and harsh environments due to high risks of collateral damage, interference, disruption and disruption.

A cyber-based counter drone takeover system offers complete control of a “rogue drone” situation without disruption or collateral damage. The fluidity of communications, commerce, transportation and daily life is made possible by surgically precise detection and then support/mitigation.

A third benefit is the ability to focus on the real threat: the most dangerous drones. Not all drones pose an equal threat. Small, short-range drones used by hobbyists often have a flight range measured in yards or meters, are controlled by a smartphone, and typically don’t carry much payload.

But there are longer range drones with high payload capacity and weather and wind resistance that could cause a major disruption or attack. In addition to posing a threat, these drones are technologically advanced and could possess evidence or intelligence. The value of capturing and preserving them rather than destroying them on sight is high.

Effective cybersecurity systems must employ drone risk analysis, assessment, and prioritization that considers drone prevalence, payload capacity, and flight range.

The past involvement of cybersecurity in the field of drones was mostly relegated to drone vulnerability or drone attack. But the innovative benefits of cybersecurity solutions on the other side of the equation have changed. Cybersecurity is now an important part of the drone solution, rather than the drone problem.


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