DIY drones can be easily modified to carry payload or celltower jammers, and to make it worse, radar mistakes them for birds.
The growing popularity of drones, especially DIY ones, could turn out to be a menace – not only are there people looking to weaponise drones, they can be used for spying and accidents can be caused by clueless owners.
To discourage abuse, commercial drone companies have included measures like black boxes to store telemetry and take-off location data, while popular drone maker DJI even requires the user to “check in” before taking off.
However, DIY drones which lack or bypass industry regulations in their software can take-off in no-fly zones or infiltrate highly secure areas even if they have geofencing. Geofencing uses GPS or RFID technology to create a virtual boundary – it will trigger an alert if a device enters or leaves the zone, or in the case of drones, prohibits them from entering the area.
Fong Choong Fook, who is the director of cybersecurity company LGMS, said drone users could cover their unit with tinfoil to block the GPS and bypass geofencing at the cost of being able to control it accurately.
There are currently no restrictions on importing drones whether in parts or whole, but a permit or approval from the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) is required for models classified as UAS (unmanned aircraft system) above 20kg.
Fong said DIY drone components could easily be bought online, with users only needing basic soldering skills to put it together. He added the entire process could be outsourced too.
Speaking on drone threats at a International Information System Security Certification Consortium chapter meeting, Fong said quadcopters could easily accelerate up to 70kph and crash into a building or person, causing serious damage even if they weighed only a few kilograms.
“If the impact doesn’t kill you, the propellers can easily cut into flesh,” said the drone enthusiast who had been cut by propeller blades himself.
He said larger drones designed to carry a DSLR camera could also lift up 2kg to 3kg, enough to carry something dangerous.
“It could be a mortar shell or grenade. Or if someone wanted to disable a cell tower, they could use a cell jammer,” said Fong.
He added that a “lethal payload” doesn’t even have to be an advanced weapon, as something as simple as a dead animal or bucket of poison into a water filtration system could kill a lot of people.
Drones could also be used for corporate espionage by functioning as a WiFi credential harvester – it could fly into a secure area or up a corporate tower and once it collected enough credentials, it would return with the info needed to break into a system.
While terrorist and corporate saboteurs may be a problem for the authorities and companies, the proliferation of consumer drones could also pose a danger to the public too.
Statistics by the Consumer Technology Association stated 3.1 million drones were sold in the United States alone last year, up 28% from 2016, making it the first year that drone revenues reached US$1bil (RM3.99bil).
Fong said older models or those with poor GPS modules could easily lose direction and the more they tried to reconnect, the more they would get confused.
So flying drones over a crowd or near office buildings can be dangerous as the radio interference could lead to fly-away syndrome, more colourfully known as toilet bowl effect, where the drone becomes confused and drifts in circles slowly away from its controller, before crashing due to a lack of power.
He gave the example of how at a big gathering a drone could go out of control due to interference from the phones’ WiFi transmission which uses the same 2.4GHz band.
“Idiots will simply fly drones near a crowd, which could end with the drone crashing into people or a building,” he said.
Another issue was safety protocols for when a drone’s battery runs low – while some have a return home or auto-landing feature, those lacking such software could just drop like a rock.
This was especially dangerous considering commercial drones could fly up to 500m high while DIY models could reach 1km to 2km.
However, DCA has capped flights at 120m, or around 393ft, in height.
Individuals in breach are punishable by up to three years jail and up to RM50,000 in fines, while companies can be fined up to RM100,000, and their representatives jailed up to six months.
DCA also requires all drones to comply to civil requirements, prohibiting flight in controlled airspace or within an aerodrome traffic zone – like an airport or airfield – unless authorised.
“The scary thing that keeps me awake is that there’s no way to stop them,” said Fong, adding that due to the drones’ small size even radar had difficulty differentiating them from birds.
He listed a few options being implemented, from electromagnetic guns that disrupt the drone’s signal, to netguns and laserguns that could catch and slice up drones, to even drone-hunting eagles in the Netherlands.
He suggested a drone pilot school could better equip enthusiasts and possibly register new users, while from a commercial perspective, there is a need for more idiot-proofing features to mitigate the toilet bowl effect, plus smarter return home and safe landing protocols for drones low on battery.
“If anyone came up a way to easily detect and deter drones, they’ll be a millionaire for sure,” said Fong.
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