Written by 3:16 PM Information Security

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise called drones, are aircraft that do not carry any crew but are controlled remotely by human operators or autonomously by utilizing pre-programmed software or robots. The use of UAVs was once limited to the military. Today, UAVs have become increasingly popular amongst civilians across the globe, for both commercial and recreational use.

From a military point of view, UAVs, which may be recoverable or expendable, are commonly used to operate in dangerous or hostile regions, without endangering operators. It is used for surveillance and observation, information collection, mine detection, and combat purposes.

Commercially, drones have become a staple in some industries. In agriculture, for example, farmers are saving thousands of dollars by employing UAVs to aid them in monitoring livestock and identifying failing plants at an early stage. In addition, drones are being used to spray crops with pesticides, fertilizer, and water.

UAVs have also been making its way into the architecture and construction environment, real estate industry, emergency response services, and delivery services. Amazon is one such company who has announced that they will start to use drones to deliver packages to its customers. Jeff Wilke, Amazon executive, at the company’s Mars 2019 conference in Las Vegas, reported that the delivery drones would be capable of flying up to 15 miles, delivering packages under 5 pounds in less than 30 minutes.

Although the introduction of UAVs in various industries has proven to be of significant use and value, there are still security and privacy risks to be considered. What happens when people with malicious intentions decide they want to have a little fun? No device is genuinely unhackable. By hijacking a single drone, criminals and criminal organizations could disrupt business operations and execute terrorist attacks by crashing into buildings, planes, etc. Additionally, UAVs could be used to carry out corporate espionage, smuggle drugs, breach the privacy and security of civilians, and infringe restricted airspace, which could endanger public safety.

In December of 2018, several planes were grounded after a series of rogue drones were sighted near Gatwick Airport in London. The incident resulted in the cancellation of a total of 1000 flights, leaving 140,000 passengers stranded in the heights of the holiday travel period. According to the law, this was a disruption of civil aviation, which is a criminal offence where those found guilty could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990.

In a 2015 incident, a drone transporting methamphetamine crashed near the US – Mexico border. Reports suggested that the UAV carrying more than 6 pounds of meth was found in the parking lot of a shopping centre in Tijuana. Police stated that this is not the first time drones were used as a medium to smuggle drugs across the border. There was also a 2018 incident in the UK where gang members used drones to smuggle drugs into prisons.

It is worth noting that the capabilities of UAVs will inevitably grow beyond what it is now. Higher capacity batteries, extended range, satellite navigation, autonomous operation, etc., are all features that will help drive continuous demand. And as the world becomes more drone-centric, the privacy and safety risks increase. And currently, there exist only a handful of countries across the globe with official laws that regulates and governs the use of UAVs.

The good news is there has not yet been any report of incidents involving UAV hacking, commercial or otherwise. However, whether or not they plan on employing drones in daily business operations, industries still need to make necessary preparations and adapt to operating in an environment where drones have become prevalent. The approach is especially essential for those working in regions where no official laws and regulations are governing its use.


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Contributed by: Sabrina Shim from Jamaica. Sabrina is a member of the WISC Discord group from the G5 Cyber Security Foundation Ltd. Learn more about WISC (Women in InfoSec Caribbean) at wiscaribbean.org. WISC is a non-profit initiative supporting  Caribbean women and girls to develop a career in Information Security.


Connect with her on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sabrina-shim-6aa36b1a8/