Moving beyond just frequency jamming, now drones can be hijacked

Drone pilots may want to brush up on their Greek mythology. In one tale Icarus, the son of master craftsman Daedalus, plunged to his death in the sea when he flew too close to the sun wearing wings made of feathers and wax his father had made so the two could escape from Crete.

The modern Icarus is an anti-drone technology exploited and demonstrated by Trend Micro that seizes control of drones in the air, according to Ars Technica.

Vulnerable links between drones and their operator transmitters are at the root of the hijacking technology. The technique, called a timing attack, works with any drone that transmits over the popular DSMx spectrum. DSMx is defined as a “wideband, frequency-agile 2.4GHz signal protocol” by Spectrum RC. The Icarus approach may work with other systems that use frequency-hopping signals as well.

Related: The FAA says to keep drones out of disaster relief areas, major sporting events

Trend Micro TippingPoint DVLab division’s Jonathan Andersson presented the Icarus attack at the PacSec 2016 security conference in Tokyo. “The shared secret (‘secret’ used loosely as it is not encrypted) exchanged is easily reconstructed long after the binding process is complete by observing the protocol and using a couple of brute-force techniques,” Andersson wrote to Ars Technica in an e-mail. “Further, there is a timing attack vulnerability wherein I synchronize to the target radio’s transmissions and transmit a malicious control packet ahead of the target, and the receiver accepts my control information and rejects the target’s.”

No one currently sells completed Icarus systems, but the knowledge of how to assemble them is not secret. Counter-drone company Department 13 founder Robi Sen told Ars Technica, “In the defense and security world, there are people who have done this.  There are also a few hackers who have done this but have not made their research public. To my knowledge, this is the first time that this has all been presented, in a complete package, publicly.”

Like many technologies Icarus has a good side and a bad side. Icarus hijacking can be used to safely land drones that fly into restricted spaces and also by property owners to disable drones they think are violating their privacy. Because each drone has a digital signature the Icarus system also could be used to trace drones to their owners in connection with civil and criminal court cases.

On the dark side, seized drones could be intentionally crashed in dangerous places. If they are carrying fuel the danger could be even worse. Another frightening scenario is if first responders’ drone are taken over and sent elsewhere.


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