Last november, in 2012, Iran captured an advanced american UAV (RQ-170 “Sentinel“) on its territory; that was quite embarrassing for USAF, the unmanned aircraft was captured intact ant the potential for a technological leak was a real threat. Many hypothesis were considered about how Iranians could get their hands on an intact drone and no official statement has been done from USAF about it.
About a month ago, maybe February 24th, another drone was captured. Not destroyed nor shooted down, captured. That raises more than a question inside Pentagon and a number of techs in the aircraft industry are in a hurry to understand what’s going on. Two different questions on the table: first, are Iranians able to communicate with drones? Second, are Iranians able to do more than interfere with UAV?
There’s a theory that states that Iranians are able to transmit false GPS coordinates to drones, that will lead the on-board computers to deviate from the intended flight path and, if this is automated too, to land in wrong places or to self-destruction. This theory implicates that is possible to communicate with drones and, by simple logic, that a code-breaking has been performed before. Another implication is that even remote-controlled drones are not safe, due to possible counter-communication strategies.
Modern day military rely heavily on drone capabilities, both for recon (UAV) and combat (UCAV) purposes. Whoever gain the choice to interfere with enemy’s drone put a serious obstacle to its strategy. This kind of research effort is not uncommon, it’s known that many countries are trying to find a reliable way to stop or to control adversary drones. The eventuality of an iranian success in this field is of course worrying for USA or Israel today and for Turkey tomorrow (think about the struggle in Syria).
For the next ten years has been theorized that we will huge developments in the unmanned vehicles sector, that after all the field experimentations done in Iraq and in Afghanistan (not to mention Lebanon or Palestine) . The next generation drones will be deployed on field near soldiers, will continue operations from the sky and from the sea. If their control can be denied, disputed or hacked, that will put every operation at risk.
The obvious answer to such a scenario is to enforce strongest level of communication security and add more layers of encoding/decoding sequences to GPS transmissions. Could it be enough to ensure safety? An alternative is to switch from the use of GPS to different ways of position/orientation checking. With the current detail level of visual satellite observations a good level of accuracy is at hand but requires a highest hardware/software capacity for onboard systems and force to limit controls to natural landmarks (i.e. a mountain) because man-made objects can be changed or destroyed on short notice. Another issue against any “visual” check is given by the mere choice to mask man-made or natural landmarks or to use smoke curtains.
The challenge of a safe use of drones is more complex than a few years ago. Today chinese manufacturers offer for 1,000/2,000 USD drones thru Alibaba, more producers are expected to do the same soon. If all this drones are hackable how you can guarantee any means of a fair use? What about civilian air traffic security? What about all kind of organized crime or terrorism?