Solving the Challenges of UAV



Commercial applications for drones require a network infrastructure that is secure, scalable, and mobile.

The future is looking up—into the sky. As unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) become more advanced and their flights more easily controllable, a wide variety of industries are employing them for tasks like aerial surveillance, infrastructure monitoring or aerial photography. According to a report[1] from the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, more than 20 major industries currently use UAVs for a variety of jobs, and this number is expected to increase: “The flood of commercial exemption requests to the [Federal Aviation Administration, or] FAA shows that a mature [UAV] commercial market is waiting to be unleashed.”

 

Figure 1: Even industrial UAVs are based on simplistic computing architectures that were not designed to be highly secure, much like IoT devices. (Courtesy Rajant)

Figure 1: Even industrial UAVs are based on simplistic computing architectures that were not designed to be highly secure, much like IoT devices. (Courtesy Rajant)

This potential market explosion is not without its hurdles, however. Besides numerous FAA regulations, there are challenges related to drone connectivity that demand a network infrastructure capable of meeting challenges, including:

Poor security: Even industrial UAVs are based on simplistic computing architectures that were not designed to be highly secure, much like IoT devices, making them vulnerable to even average-caliber hackers. Adversaries can use standard debug tools to circumvent the software and hack the drone to control it, preventing it from completing its tasks.

Figure 2: For many networks, the more devices operating on a single network, the spottier the connection becomes-not an option for critical-infrastructure industries using drones to carry out mission-critical tasks. (Courtesy Rajant)

Figure 2: For many networks, the more devices operating on a single network, the spottier the connection becomes–not an option for critical-infrastructure industries using drones to carry out mission-critical tasks. (Courtesy Rajant)

In 2013, a hacker demonstrated that his homemade drone could hack other drones in mid-flight and told Wired Magazine that he was able to do so because of unsecured Wi-Fi connections. Drones can be infiltrated by malware such as Maldrone, which is designed specifically to hack into UAVs via Internet connections. The malware acts as proxy between the drone and hacker, who can pull information about the drone and use it to manipulate its navigation, causing it to veer off course, crash, or err in its tasks.

Some UAVs collect and store data (such as video) locally, and this data is unencrypted in almost every case. If the drone crashes, anyone could access the memory element inside it and view this data. Additionally, an adversary can hack into the drone to see what data it is collecting or what tasks it is performing.

If the drone is running on a standard wireless network, the hacked drone also can cause network interference on the company’s network, impacting business operations and the functionalities of sensors or smart devices.

A hacked drone can create a back door into a company’s wireless network, threatening profitability and productivity. In the event of a data breach, the downtime incurred can cost millions in lost productivity and damage a business’s relationship with its customers. Adversaries also can obtain access to proprietary information or intellectual property, allowing competitors to access trade secrets.

Lack of scalability: For many networks, the more devices operating on a single network, the spottier the connection becomes—not an option for critical-infrastructure industries using drones to carry out mission-critical tasks while concurrent applications eat up the same network’s bandwidth.

Lack of mobile connectivity: Many drones are designed to use a wireless connection to communicate with the pilot or command center, and once they are out of range, connectivity is lost. Because these “non-payload” connections are part of fixed infrastructure like cell towers and routers, they are static; they cannot move with the drone. The drone remains tied to a single access point and is unable to move beyond that network’s range.

To overcome these challenges and allow the commercial drone market to reach its full potential, a different kind of wireless network is required.

New Connectivity Options for UAVs
A type of wireless mesh network called kinetic mesh is becoming a viable option for companies that want to run commercial drones, but are concerned about some of the connectivity and security issues. Kinetic mesh wireless networks have been deployed in such rugged environments as mining, military, oil and gas, and public safety, and can solve some of the inherent problems of drone operations.

Security: Kinetic mesh gives a secure, private backbone on which to transmit data from a drone to a user or control center while also detecting and preventing tampering and allowing encryption for data security.

Kinetic mesh delivers end-to-end encryption, with 256-bit, military-grade encryption. When encrypted information flows through the mesh and comes to another node, it stays encrypted all the way through. It is not decrypted until it is delivered to its final destination, ensuring privacy and security. Metadata also is encrypted; importantly, an attacker cannot analyze the traffic and see which nodes are communicating with other devices.

Additionally, at each hop in the network, kinetic mesh provides per-hop authentication for each packet. Such authentication detects data tampering. At the same time, it ensures a packet of information received by a node came from a trusted peer, protecting against packet-injection cyber-attacks. Would-be attackers are prevented from “throwing” packets in to disrupt traffic. The hacker drone Skyjack employs this method: Using Wi-Fi to detect other drones in its range, it injects Wi-Fi packets into the victim drone’s connection, making it de-authenticate from its remote controller (usually a smartphone) and authenticate in its place, taking it under control. Kinetic mesh prevents such packet-injection attacks.

Scalability: In kinetic mesh, because there is no central control node, routes are built automatically. This allows the network to adapt to node location, local interference and congestion dynamically, despite conditions that would cripple other networks.

A kinetic mesh network can be easily redeployed and expanded in multiple ways, while still operating with the same level of reliability. While traditional mesh networks degrade as more nodes are added, kinetic mesh grows stronger with each additional node. The nodes self-configure, making it simple to expand the network.

Mobility: A UAV operating off a standard network is bound to static infrastructure like mounted access points, towers, or wireless routers, even though the drones are always on the go. In kinetic mesh, everything is constantly moving—including the infrastructure, allowing an expansive network footprint that functions even in dynamic application.

In a kinetic mesh network, multiple, redundant radio frequencies and any-node-to-any-node capabilities are deployed to continuously and instantly route data via the best-available path and frequency, even over dozens of nodes. If part of the network becomes congested or experiences interference, the network instantaneously reroutes around any failure, keeping the drones in the air and on task.

With a wireless kinetic mesh radio attached to it, not only can the drone tap into the network for longer distance flight, but it also becomes its own access point. The drone can create a pop-up connection tower as long as it is within range of the network’s control center, extending the network and allowing other applications to continue to run.

A Future Beyond Standard Wireless Networks
AUVSI has estimated that the economic impact of commercial drones in the United States alone will be $82 billion by 2025. There is huge potential for industries to become more efficient and intelligent by using autonomous and remote-controlled UAVs—but there are still obstacles to overcome because of current network limitations in addition to regulatory hurdles.

Employing a kinetic mesh network to operate UAVs provides the security, scalability and mobility that standard wireless networks cannot deliver, and help to power the future success of commercial drone use.

Don-Gilbreath Don Gilbreath is Vice President, Systems at Rajant, and a licensed drone pilot. He can be reached at dgilbreath@rajant.com


[1] http://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/AUVSI/f28f661a-e248-4687-b21d-34342433abdb/UploadedFiles/Section333Report.pdf

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