Why It's Easy to Hijack Airborne Drones

NEWS ANALYSIS: A noted security researcher says it's easy to hijack a widely-used, but poorly-secured, airborne drone using an autonomous skyjacking drone of his own.


Security and privacy researcher Samy Kamkar told eWEEK exactly how easy it is to take over a small drone while it's in flight and then turn the device to your own ends.

In effect, he says, it's not only possible to steal a drone, it's easy and cheap, especially when the system was designed without strong security features. He also said that there are things a drone user can do to prevent this from happening.

There are also some limitations. Kamkar said that his method of hijacking a drone currently only works with devices made by Parrot, which is one of the most commonly used remotely piloted drones. It also requires a software application, called Skyjack, that was developed in part by Kamkar.

The security of drone communications has become an issue since Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos revealed on a Dec. 1 broadcast of the CBS news feature show "60 Minutes" that his company is developing airborne drones capable of delivering packages to customers. This has triggered a public debate on whether an express delivery service based on unmanned drones could be operated safely and reliably, especially in urban areas.

Kamkar is a long-time security researcher and developer of security systems. He is founder of Unleak, a start up that is beta testing an enterprise data security product. He was also the co-founder of Fonality and Global Domains. His work with drones is part of his ongoing cyber-security research.

The Parrot AR drone is widely used in news and video applications as well as for use in law enforcement besides being widely used by hobbyists. For its size, it's a sophisticated device with a wide range of options and it can be purchased from Amazon.com for under $300.

Kamkar said that his hijacking method will not work if drone operators take security precautions such as encrypting the data link. "SkyJack will not work if the drone is using an encrypted com link," Kamkar said in an email. "It currently only works with Parrot-based systems, all of which are unencrypted."

But what would-be drone delivery companies, such as Amazon and UPS, should be worried about is that the same method of taking over a drone could work on their devices, once the details about their operation are known. Kamkar used those details about Parrot drones to program his own drone to take them over.

As Kamkar explains on his site, he installs a Raspberry Pi computer, a battery and a wireless transmitter on his own drone. He's installed Linux on the computer and runs Skyjack software, which is the application that does the actual drone takeover.

"The software works with a queuing mechanism," Kamkar explained in his email to eWEEK. "Taking over one drone at a time until all drones it sees are Skyjacked, and then repeats looking for additional drones to control."

Kamkar's drone can operate autonomously, flying around near his Los Angeles home encountering drones it can take over. But Kamkar also said that the software does not need to be installed on a drone to function. In fact, it can be installed on a ground-based computer and simply take over any drone it can detect.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...