Watch out, dronesters: What goes up must come down

Just when every American and their mother, it seems, has figured out a way to get their hands on an amateur drone and send it skyward, techies have figured out a way to force them back to earth.

And unlike most other counter-drone weapons previously released, the device that Jonathan Andersson with Trend Micro’s TippingPoint DVLab unveiled this week at the PacSec 2016 security conference in Tokyo isn’t simply a frequency jammer that knocks out communication between the remote control and the drone its user is flying, according to a post in ArsTechnica.

Andersson has apparently hit a sweet spot in anti-drone work, coming up with a device that’s more subtle than other technologies out there. How? By using a  radio transmitter that takes over complete control of a drone  in mid-flight. The original operator is suddenly cut out of the loop, unable to steer, accelerate or land the damn thing.

“In the defense and security world, there are people who have done this,” Robi Sen, the founder of counter-drone product maker Department 13, told Ars. “There are also a few hackers who have done this but have not made their research public. To my knowledge, this is the first time that this has all been presented, in a complete package, publicly.”

That’s high praise coming from Sen, a legendary pioneer in the field of anti-drone technology whom I interviewed for a similar story earlier this year.  Sen talked with me about ways some Silicon Valley companies were starting to create “geofences,” which are digitally created walls to stop drones from flying over their property and, possible, stealing proprietary information in the process.

“Experts say there are other ways to surround property with a geofence, and some drone enthusiasts believe Silicon Valley companies may be quietly working to install “hidden” barriers set up by third parties. Robi Sen, founder and chief technology officer of Maryland-based communications and security company Department 13, said that in addition to creating potential safety hazards, drones can be used to steal trade secrets — and his firm is helping companies thwart the crafts from hovering over their properties.

While the small size of drones can make them hard to identify or distinguish from, say, a bird, Sen said, some tech companies are “using machine learning to help differentiate objects in the air so they can say, ‘Hey, this is a drone.’ ” Other companies are using acoustic technology to identify unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, Sen said, and “these tools are being used by prisons and at events like the Boston Marathon.”

Sen said his firm’s software would allow a company to remotely “redirect an unwanted drone by setting up a geofence around its campus that says, ‘Don’t come in.’ “

With word this week of Andersson’s invention, others will surely jump on the anti-drone trend and come up with effective technologies for companies – and everyone from firefighters to airport managers and cops – to stop unwanted drones in their tracks. And Andersson’s device has the added benefit of being able not just to stop a drone but to grab a “digital fingerprint” of the UAV, which is a unique identifier that each aircraft has and can be used to identify trusted drones from unfriendly ones.

As Ars Technica points out, the explosion of amateur drones has created all sorts of headaches for law-enforcement officers and crews trying to fight forest fires from the air without having to worry about intruding toy drones violating the air space.

Credits: Dan Goodin (video); Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images (photo)


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  • Frank N

    While this could work for toy drones, the worst it could do to serious ones is block communications. All this will be addressed systematically as we develop standards. We’ll have unique IDs like the Ethernet MAC address. We’ll require that for all drones sold or brought in the US. The sooner we can set basic standards, the sooner we can enforce them.

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