Making Sure Cybersecurity and Liability Concerns Don’t Ground the Drones

by Snell & Wilmer

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, are slowly being integrated into U.S. and international airspace systems.  Despite current legal and regulatory limitations on their use for civilian purposes, governmental and private entities are devoting significant resources to advancing UAS technology and applications.  For example, internet industry giants Facebook and Google are exploring how to deliver internet connectivity to billions of unconnected people with fleets of solar-powered drones.  Such creativity and technological exploration should be encouraged.

But as drone use increases, so do safety considerations for people and property.  Simply put, drones can crash and cause collateral damage.  In two recent examples, a triathlete in Australia was hospitalized after a commercial photography drone struck her head during an event, and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard RQ-7 military drone was run over by a civilian vehicle after it crash landed near a Pennsylvania elementary school.  Although the two incidents are believed to be accidental, it is easy to imagine instances where drones could be hijacked for malicious purposes, such as crashing one or more drones into civilian “soft” targets.   Drone command and control “hacking” and malware “infections” are means to such ends, so drone cybersecurity is and will continue to be a major consideration for all stakeholders moving forward.

Drones are essentially flying computers and, therefore, are similarly vulnerable to cyber-threats.  And because the drone is actually a system within a system—including ground stations, communication satellites/infrastructure and operators—there are multiple entry points for the mischievous.  Indeed, data such as flight control inputs or video feeds are transmitted between ground station/operator and drones through space and may be intercepted.   So even if the drone is “secure,” the data it receives may not be.

The Iranian government claims this was the case when the United States lost a RQ-170 Sentinel drone overseas in 2011.  The Iranians asserted they were able to cut off communications between US operators and the drone and then manipulated (“spoofed”) global positioning system signals to the drone so that it landed relatively intact within Iranian territory.  Although the legitimacy of Iran’s claims have been debated partly due to the robust signal encryption protections that U.S. military drones employ, experts agree that unencrypted drones—like many on the commercial market—are highly susceptible to GPS-spoofing (a form of hijacking) and other forms of flight path manipulation.  In fact, in 2012, a University of Texas professor  GPS-spoofed a drone from one kilometer away during a demonstration before the Department of Homeland Security.

Unmanned aerial systems’ hardware and software are susceptible to other cyber-threats.  Malware has been shown to have penetrated US military unmanned aerial systems. In 2011, a “keylogger” virus was discovered in Air Force drone operator “cockpits.”  How the system became infected  has not been disclosed, but it reinforces concerns that computerized UAS components are vulnerable to cyber attacks and the resulting evils (for example, the failure of vital flight systems and drones raining down from the sky, or worse, drones being hijacked and turned into weapons against us).

The physical dangers and potential liabilities associated with hijacked or “infected” drones in the United States are obvious.   And although not addressed here, certainly privacy and proprietary concerns also fall within the realm of drone cybersecurity.   As legislatures, courts and private entities address emerging general national cybersecurity issues, drones undoubtedly will be a part of that discussion.  Companies considering drone technology would be well-advised to consider cybersecurity an important part of their design, purchase and operational strategy. Understanding and contributing to the public policy debate will be critically important to drone procedures and uses.




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