Archive for the ‘Drones / UAVs’ Category

Using GPS to hijack ships and crash drones

July 31, 2013 Leave a comment

Satellite navigation systems such as GPS, the Global Positioning System that provides location information for our smartphones and navigation systems, have become a very useful tool in our daily lives. While today we mostly rely on the US GPS, built in the 1970s, even Europe, after many delays, will finally have its own system (Russia already has their own called GLONASS).

However, the more we rely on GPS navigation, not only for posting our location on Facebook but for car, plane and ship navigation, the more incidents happen, which show the vulnerability of the technology. In 2012 a drone by the Austrian manufacturer Schiebel crashed in South Korea, killing an engineer. It was believed back then that this happened in connection with GPS signal jamming by North Korea, which caused navigation problems in the past. This adds to other drone vulnerabilities discovered in recent years, such as unencrypted video feeds.

Now, students of the University of Texas showed in an experiment how they could hijack a Yacht using GPS spoofing without any crew member noticing (similar to what Iran claimed to have done in 2011). They achieved this by creating a fake GPS signal and slowly increasing its signal strength until the ships automatic navigation system completely relied on this signal. Then, they slowly changed the signal to make the Yacht believe it is off course and to correct for it. Here is a description about the method:


“Anti-drone city” to protect from attacks

February 11, 2013 Leave a comment
(c) Asher J. Kohn

(c) Asher J. Kohn

Following my recent post about the anti-drone hoodie, the work of Asher J. Kohn is worth mentioning. He drafted an architectural concept for an “anti-drone city“, which uses several technological tricks to defend against detection from drones. Towers, which change heat patterns are used to confuse thermal detection systems. Windows made out of LED screens project changing patterns to produce false detections. Displays in the courtyard show QR patterns and fake shadows.

All deflection systems used are meant to confuse completely autonomous military drones to draw attention away from humans. However, as soon as a human is in the loop and looks at the drone’s camera images all this effort is worthless. Further, the concept is targeted at military applications and thus is basically another defence system for war zones.

I believe that anything developed to save human lives is a good effort. But concepts that can protect individuals from urban, every-day drone surveillance are worth thinking of as well. For example, wouldn’t it be interesting to develop a kind of opt-out surveillance system? To define a standard, in which individuals can choose if they want to be seen or not? Similar to location tracking on smart phones. Individuals, who do not want to be tracked would be left out of the image (e.g. by pixelating them or replacing them with an avatar). Of course, this system could be overruled for Police use but it would protect us from private drone surveillance in the future. It would be a good compromise between growing drone usage and the protection of our privacy. I believe, these ideas are worth developing further.

How to protect yourself from drone surveillance

February 1, 2013 1 comment


If you are worried about the coming wave of drone surveillance technology, stealth wear is the right thing for you. Adam Harvey developed the “Anti Drone Hoodie” to make yourself invisible to thermal cameras attached to drones. He has even more designs, which are actually quite fashionable. They work by using “highly metallized fibers” to shield heat from getting outside. Thus, thermal cameras, which detect heat at certain wave lengths, cannot pick you up. Unfortunately, most drones for non-military use currently work with usual color cameras where this protection does not help. But it definitely is a nice geek accessory. And it looks good too!

Flying drones prone to hacking

July 2, 2012 Leave a comment

MQ-9_Reaper_-_090609-F-0000M-777The US department of homeland security was offering a prize for whoever can hack into a flying drone. Now, a team from the University of Texas actually achieved it by spoofing GPS signals. This way, a drone can literally be steered anywhere the hacker likes and could be crashed into a building like a missile. This is an obvious security threat to drones today, more so if they are used in urban environments. While this simple “hack” can probably be fixed, it is a warning sign that these threats have to be considered when developing and deploying this technology.

Drone Authorizations in the US Include Police Departments

April 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Just to point out this interesting article by EFF about issued drone authorizations to public as well as private institutions in the US. There are no big surprises there with public institutions like DARPA or border patrol as well as many research institutions. Interestingly, a number of police departments are included in the list, suggesting that they already use, or are planning to use, drones in police work.

Drones in urban environments: New helpers in the streets or surveillance machines?

February 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Though it does not specifically state that drones can be used for surveillance purposes, German “Bundestag” recently allowed drones as a new classification and part of air traffic if used for traffic purposes (English translation). As states, this makes way for drones being used in the future not only by security authorities but by private persons and firms as well. This is interesting, since German police have been using drones in recent years already and have been testing new systems. With little success however. Before surveillance and identification of persons, for example at demonstrations, will be possible, some time will go by. This is a good excuse however, to look at UAVs (drones, that is) from a privacy point of view.

UAV use will definitely increase in coming years. It is an active field of research that is being investigated in numerous research projects around the globe. Existing systems are used on a regular basis in wars such as in Afghanistan by US forces. These systems are usually remote-controlled with a human remote pilot flying them, allowing minimum risk when killing people (yes, that’s not very sportsmanlike). In urban areas they have the potential of one day even helping to avoid catastrophes like in Duisburg or detecting riots early. Mirco aerial vehicles (MAV) today are already very small (down to 15cm) and in the future will be as small as insects. They will be piloting themselves and will automatically analyze what is happening on the ground. In several research projects the possibility of collaborating micro-drone swarms, which  stay in the air for a long time or even forever is investigated (check out this interesting publication on MAVs).

In battle-field situations nobody cares about privacy but as soon as they are used in urban, “civilian” applications, privacy becomes an issue.

Of course, any existing laws for spying on persons are valid for UAVs as well. If a helicopter flies over demonstrators or a UAV does not make much difference. The same goes, in principle, for recording video surveillance material or automatically analyzing movement of persons. Today, video surveillance is granted (or not) based on the reason and the place where it is performed. Drones however can change their place of surveillance very fast so new privacy regulations, which consider drones, will be necessary.

Today, persons cannot be identified from such images, so for person surveillance this technology is just not suitable (yet). The horror scenario of UAVs roaming our streets, automatically looking for suspicious persons is not real yet and probably won’t be for some time because it is just not feasible. Applications where drones do make sense are situations where it is too dangerous for humans to perform tasks (such as in war and after catastrophes) and where they can give additional information from a different perspective (for example during football matches, demonstrations and riots).

Today’s technical possibilities (outside the lab) should not be exaggerated, we are not there yet. However, it is good to ask questions about privacy early and that already today these considerations are worked into laws. Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at Stanford, even postulates that drones will eventually INCREASE our personal privacy by being openly visible on the streets and thus triggering a wide-spread privacy debate. Contrary to phone tapping and internet traffic surveillance drones will be a very visible kind of surveillance that will make it much more obvious to discuss privacy issues.

UAVs are a technology to watch, which will make significant technological strides forward in coming years. It will be exciting to see how it and its regulation will develop in the near future.

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