Johns Hopkins scientists brings down hobby drones to expose security flaws

June 8, 2016

Sales of drones—small flying machines equipped with cameras—are soaring, but new research by a Johns Hopkins computer security team has raised concerns about how easily hackers could cause these robotic devices to ignore their human controllers—and potentially crash to the ground.

Five graduate students and their professor discovered three different ways to send rogue commands from a laptop computer to interfere with an airborne hobby drone’s normal operation and land it or send it plummeting.

The finding is important because drones—also called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs—have become so popular that they are literally flying off the shelves. A recent article in Fortune magazine, referring to the 12-month period ending in April, trumpeted that drone sales have tripled in the last year. And the devices are not cheap. The article stated that the average cost of a drone was more than $550, though prices vary widely depending on the sophistication of the device. A recent Federal Aviation Administration report predicts that 2.5 million hobby type and commercial drones would be sold in 2016.

But in their haste to satisfy consumer demands, drone makers may have left a few digital doors unlocked.

“You see it with a lot of new technology,” said Lanier A. Watkins, who supervised the recent drone research at JHU’s Homewood campus. “Security is often an afterthought. The value of our work is in showing that the technology in these drones is highly vulnerable to hackers.”

Watkins is a senior cybersecurity research scientist in the Whiting School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science. He also holds appointments with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute.

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JHU Information Security Institute