After getting through day 1 of AUVSI Xponential, we feel far more educated about the wider world of drone operations. Make no mistake, the item of most relevance to your hobby drone flight was GPS hijacking, the rest would be fun to know, but not crucial to your fun flights.
For the commercial users, and more for the laws behind all drone flight around the world, not just the United States, this was a gold mine of data.
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The show floor of AUVSI Xponential does not open until day two of the event in Denver. You know we’re excited for that, but let’s talk about our education experience for now.
Our sessions included talk about weather systems and analysis, FAA Pathfinder program and GPS safety.
We also attended a session on computational processing in drones. That session was extremely theoretical, considering how literal of a thing on-board computers are. I call back to our coverage of Intel and Nvidia at InterDrone last year, and I’ll tell you to stay tuned for upcoming coverage of Uvify here in Denver. All of these companies promote and already use powerful on-board processing for flight assistance, autonomy and more.
This panel discussed some of the challenges facing drone operators around the globe in terms of the weather. Let’s be fair, these weather challenges are a problem for everyone, not just pilots. Lighting and heavy winds can seriously ruin your flight.
As it sits, most of us hit the local weather channel to see what the day might be like. Then we head outside, stick our finger in the air and make our decision to fly or not. There is nothing wrong with this plan for our hobby flights, but careful operations are another story.
Let’s say you need to inspect a cathedral in Germany, you get up into the air on the side of the building, all is well. Then you get over the top, or turn a corner around the side and boom, your drone is slammed with gusty winds.
We may never see a global, or even national solution to track winds on this level, but in a research setting, the tech exists.
FAA Pathfinder program
Established three years ago, the Pathfinder program is a group of individuals from PrecisionHawk, Mitre company, CNN and BNSF. Working closely with the FAA, the goal has been to build and test systems that may one day remove some of the more stringent FAA regulations for drone flight. Primarily, they talked about BVLOS today. Being able to fly beyond your visual line of sight is a desire for many, particularly in a commercial operation.
BNSF has thousands of miles of rail track to inspect constantly. If a human needs to be able to see the drone, they can pretty much already see the tracks. Maybe that’s incorrect, but certainly not a stretch to say that a drone is not worth the extra cost when you have a human right there anyway.
CNN took another topic, tackling the ability to fly over top of people. They hold three of what they believe are nine total waivers that the FAA has ever given out for UAS over people. Just as important, they have their own drone.
Wait, CNN has their own drone?
That’s right, the Snap, built by Vantage Robotics. It’s similarly sized to the DJI Mavic Pro, looks to be a very simple machine and is held together by magnets. This drone is designed to snap apart in a crash, and snap back together for repair. It is light weight and, as far as the FAA is concerned, obviously, safe to fly over people.
CNN made it clear that that is not their plan, they don’t want to fly over people, but they have the waiver to do so if all conditions permit.
Drone hijacking, GPS Spoofing and GPS Jamming
We learned a lot about GPS today. Primarily, we learned that all GPS satellites are in sync for the time, and they operate on one radio frequency. The data packets that GPS satellites push out contain all sorts of data, but are carefully keyed for time. That data includes a PRN number, just like your old smartphone. In short, a data packet will include all of the data needed for all devices in the area, then your receiver finds the proper PRN number in the code and extracts just what it needs.
That sounds like a vulnerability, because it is.
GPS Jamming is simply a matter of introducing a factor, such as noise to the radio waves. The physical object or noise blocks your drone’s ability to communicate with the satellites. I will reiterate the emphasis from the session: Jamming is not spoofing or hijacking. Technically, if you fly under a metal roof, you’ve jammed yourself. Your drone may not act as desired, but it has not been hijacked.
GPS Spoofing is a difficult thing to do well. Simple spoofing collects the signal from the satellite, manipulates it and fires it over to your drone. Thing is, GPS is very dependent on time. The added delay of even fractions of a second is enough to trigger a warning. More specifically, the initial data packet has it’s send time, then the repeater has a send time, if the two times are different, something’s wrong.
Advanced spoofing is a much better middle man, it takes the initial data packet from the satellite and manages to manipulate it to look like the real deal. A successful spoof is very hard to detect, as your systems will operate properly, it just might not respond to your controls as it should. A clever attacker will slowly ease your drone off course until the right moment to accomplish their nefarious goals.
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Good news, GPS spoofing is illegal. Also, spoofing, no matter how successful, will only truly hijack your drone if you depend on GPS to fly. Toy drones, Race drones and many other machines do not use GPS for flight, or they can at least turn off GPS.
Your DJI drone in default settings is at risk of hijacking via GPS spoofing, Again I say, good thing that’s illegal. The flips side, it only takes about $350 in gear, plus a laptop and you can be breaking the law spoofing GPS in your neighborhood. Links below… I’m kidding.
One piece of advice, use multiple GPS tools, if possible. For example, GPS and GLONASS working together is harder to spoof both simultaneously, and should rely on one if the other acts strange. Other options include Galileo and BeiDou, depending on where you live on this planet.
We are already having a ton of fun at AUVSI Xponential. The education sessions go all week, and it is amazing to sit with like-minded, but very intelligent people that love what they do, flying drones.
Aside from the education, we met briefly with the folks of IDRA and Uvify. The drone race course looks deceptively easy, just a few turns and a little ramp. Let’s just say that it’s a good thing that was just some practice sessions we watched, hope those pilots have lots of spare parts, if you know what I’m sayin’.
We also said hello to DJI. They are highlighting a fancy new camera at the show, stay tuned for that.
Finally, we met up with our new friends at UAV Couch, they provide the commercial drone pilot training course we recommend – Drone Pilot Ground School. Stay tuned this year for some fun collaboration to help you with your pilot training for both fun and to get your Part 107 certification.
Plenty more to come from AUVSI Xponential.
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