• United States



Julie Sartain
tech journalist

In the wrong hands, drones can be life-threatening

Sep 19, 20167 mins
Computers and PeripheralsMobileSmall and Medium Business

Why it’s time to start developing a drone security strategy

drones apocolypse
Credit: Thinkstock images

Everyone is familiar with the military use of drones. You’ve probably heard about Amazon’s plans to deliver commercial goods to consumers via drones. And Google is reportedly developing solar-powered drones that will deliver high-speed Internet.

There’s no limit to the beneficial uses of drone technology. Dropping Zika-fighting pesticides or firefighting chemicals in remote areas. Search and rescue. Delivering emergency medical supplies. The list goes on and on.

But what about the darker side of drones? Is it time for security pros to begin formulating a drone defense strategy?

Consider this: An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) dropped a package with 144.5 grams of tobacco, 65.4 grams of marijuana, and 6.6 grams of heroin into the north yard of the Mansfield Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio, causing a prison yard melee.

Or how about the British burglars using drones to check out which houses to rob. Or the New Jersey bandits who used a drone as a lookout in case the cops showed up.

Enterprise security concerns

It’s probably just a matter of time before drones become part of the toolkit of hackers, spies, industrial thieves, disgruntled employees, etc.

Joerg Lamprecht, co-founder and CEO of Dedrone, a German company headquartered in San Francisco that makes early-warning and detection systems for drones, says, “When your airspace is exposed, no longer are fences, video cameras, and security guards adequate to protect sensitive buildings or personnel.”

According to Lamprecht, drones that can carry up to five kilograms and fly several kilometers can be purchased on the Internet or at any local electrical goods store for less than $1,600. And, by using a GPS and autopilot, many drones can fly a programmed route, which means an attacker can be in a completely different location from the crime scene, he says.

+ MORE ON DRONES: Infographic: Commercial drones by the numbers +

Imagine a camera-equipped drone hovering outside the window of a top researcher or product developer or CEO for a major company, taking snapshots of documents or pictures of a whiteboard or even screengrabs. In fact, with a high-powered lens, the drone could be sitting atop the building across the street.

Then there’s the whole issue of wardriving, but now it’s warflying. Gartner analyst Gerald Van Hoy says drones can cruise over neighborhoods and search for open Wi-Fi connections in order to gain access to an individual’s computer, network, and even use their IP addresses for illegal activity like identity theft.

“The same goes for businesses,” Van Hoy says. “Recently, there was a case in the news about a drone that gained access to a corporate network because the devices on the higher floors of the building were not encrypted.”

Drone-maggdon scenarios

Beyond just industrial sabotage, drones could have a disastrous impact on public safety.

“The threat potential of drones is diverse,” says Lamprecht. “Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also pose a severe threat to the safety of airplanes.” The FAA receives more than 100 reports of drone sightings each month. And earlier this year, independent research institutes warned of the danger of terrorists abusing consumer drones for attacks on aircraft.

“In fact, the FAA has restricted drone use within five miles of airports for safety reasons. If a drone were to accidentally get sucked up by a jet engine, the engine would explode and the plane would crash,” adds Jack Reis, project manager at Harbor Research.

When wildfires were burning up Northern California last summer, aircraft carrying water and fire retardant were hindered by private citizens sending up drones to get a better look at the situation. Firefighters on the ground and the aerial flight crews have no way to communicate with these drone operators.

Reis says the possible threat of an explosive device or hazardous biochemical mechanism attached to a drone aimed at harming civilians is another frightening scenario. In April 2015, a UAV carrying radioactive material landed on the Japanese Prime Minister’s roof. If drones can airdrop drugs into prisons, they can also drop bombs, chemicals, or a deadly virus into a city’s population or a town’s water supply.

Another scenario is that a drone can mess with your smart home, tamper with the electricity, turn on the gas, turn off the heat, turn the water on until it floods the entire house. And could a drone attack a smart neighborhood or even a smart city?

“More importantly,” adds Reis, “Hackers can use drones to affect remote devices coming online in applications such as power plants/transmissions, pipelines, and other mission-critical-distributed devices that may not have proper security standards. In addition to disrupting the process that is occurring around that device, an open entry point could lead to a network of devices extending from a pipeline; for example, all the way to a process plant or transfer station.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” adds Van Hoy, “Drones are just the current flavor of the month, this kind of threat could also come in the form of driverless cars, or a robotic window cleaner, or any other number of Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices. I’m not saying the risks outweigh the benefits of these kinds of technologies, just that security should always be a high priority.”

On the plus side

“In spite of the safety and security issues, we believe the drone market shows tremendous opportunity,” Reis adds. “As end-customer needs are clarified, so too will the value propositions offered by drone manufacturers in innovative use cases. Currently, aerial surveying, mining, oil and gas, and agriculture markets are benefitting heavily from the use of drones.”

For example, agricultural use includes spraying large tracts of land for pests, and trials for minimizing the mosquito problem/Zika virus threat are in process for high risk states such as Louisiana and Florida. Drones help farmers better manage their crops by providing aerial views of everything from irrigation problems to soil variation to pest and fungal infestations.

“Drones can get into tight spots and use less product through precision applications,” says Hammond. “And it’s especially practical when dispersal is combined with refined sensor data such as heat and insect pressure.”

+ MORE DRONES: Commercial drones gaining altitude with enterprise IT vendors +

In addition, Hammond says that live video feeds from hard-to-reach places are one of the real benefits of drones because these devices are more flexible and can move in closer than a helicopter, for example, to view small areas such as cracks in a bridge’s superstructure. Last year, Somerville, Mass., used drones to survey the roofs of government buildings to evaluate excessive snow loads and then to direct the city’s removal plan. Drones can also survey traffic jams, automobile accidents, ice and snow conditions on roads and bridges, and calculate the number of cars in a parking lot.

According to Forrester, all types of sensors can attach to drones that collect information such as optical, thermal, chemical, infrared, etc. Chemical sensors can detect methane in gas fields and thermal sensors can detect the presence of humans or animals in dangerous areas such as those in proximity to geysers, mudpots, steamvents, hot springs, or volcanoes. Drones can also deliver supplies and medicines to secluded areas, contagious zones, and remote towns and villages that are inaccessible by any means except by foot.

Drone detection

According to Reis, drones are the ultimate remote device—some with ranges of hundreds of miles and most include video cameras to see what’s going on the entire time. While these capabilities enable a wide range of value-added applications across many industries (precision agriculture, power transmission line inspection, pipeline inspection, package delivery, etc.) they also present significant safety and security risks.

“The best protection against hostile drones is a comprehensive, automated system that consists of dependable drone detection and integrated countermeasures that are triggered based on the individual threat situation and legal preconditions,” says Lamprecht. “Our DroneTracker reliably detects and identifies criminal drones by means of multiple sensors, data fusion, and intelligent software technology. Defensive measures can be activated automatically and security services notified.”

Sartain is a freelance writer. She can be reached at