A security researcher has found a way to hijack your beloved drone, or your radio-controlled boat, helicopter, boat or plane. It could prove to be the most annoying thing in the world, but it could also help security forces keep drones from restricted areas.
Jonathan Andersson, manager of the Advanced Security Research Group at Trend Micro DVLabs, came up with the method to target the DSMx protocol that is used in drones and other radio-controlled toys all over the world. He presented his findings, together with a device dubbed Icarus, at the PacSec security conference in Tokyo.
Icarus exploits a major security flaw
Andersson made Icarus with off-the-shelf parts and he can use it to take control of a drone or other device in moments. Essentially you’re locked out of your own drone when Icarus extracts the pairing information from the DSMx receiver and then takes advantage of a vulnerability in the timing to send its own control packets that cause the drone to ignore the actual owner’s controller.
There simply isn’t the level of encryption you’d expect from the DSMx protocol and that gives Icarus an easy point of entry.
“My guess is that it will not be easy to completely remedy the situation. The manufacturers and partners in the ecosystem sell standalone radio transmitters, models of all kinds, transmitters that come with models and standalone receivers,” Andersson told Ars Technica. “Only a certain set of standalone transmitters have a firmware upgrade capability, though the fix is needed on the model/receiver side.”
Better than shooting drones down
As drones become ubiquitous then the regulations are tightening up, with licensing and no-fly zones. While these safeguards are in place, though, anybody can order a drone and completely ignore the safety requirements and there really isn’t much we can do apart from shoot them out the sky.
We have seen some left-field options that include autonomous drones with nets, but this is the cleanest way to take a drone out that we’ve seen so far if you discount surface to air missiles that come with their own risks.
So there’s definitely a market for a commercial device that can take control of a drone and take it out of restricted zone. That could be an airport or it could be a big sporting event or concerts, which are increasingly common targets for drone pilots that want to show their skills and simply get away with something for the thrill of it.
It takes your drone’s ID too
Andersson’s technique can also monitor drones in restricted areas, retrieving their unique IDs so they can be traced for further investigation by the relevant authorities.
So Icarus has got a useful, practical application. But it could also be the bane of drone owners worldwide as hackers will take great delight in taking control of their pride and joy and slamming it into the ground as they watch helplessly.