Cybersecurity: Drones in Disguise

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a drone in disguise?
23 April 2019

Interview with 

Chris Johnson, University of Glasgow


Silhouette of a drone flying over a city


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a drone in disguise? Computer scientist Chris Johnson from Glasgow University shows Adam Murphy how a drone can mask as a Boeing-737.

Adam - In the news now we've seen a lot of things about drones like Gatwick drone being the infamous case that's come to mind. Now you’ve brought one with you, Chris. What's so special about your a little drone?

Chris J - Right now, the area that I work in, there's a huge question of this kind of technological battle, you know, defenders trying to protect against attackers not knowing all the things that they're going to do and not really having a playbook. Well I brought you here is a G.P.S. something called a DSP transmitter. Aircraft like ML360, you know the Malaysian aircraft that disappeared, you can detect them using two different technologies.

Primary radar, which is the kind of thing that you'll be familiar with from the Second World War. So you you ping out a beam of energy and you receive a signal back. OK. You only get an idea of the location of the object, you don't necessarily know its identity. So that's called primary radar. Secondary radar, what you do is you query the object and the object itself can provide back to you information about itself, so it sounds like a radio signal and that's called a transponder, typically, on an aircraft.

The benefit of that is if we use primary radar we have to have radar everywhere. Whereas what we can do with boxes like this is receive a G.P.S. signal and then broadcast our position to somewhere on the ground and we don't need all these all these base stations, these radar stations.

The good use of this technology is so we can attach this to a drone and what it will do is tell you where it is. That's good. Okay. The other thing that we could do of course is, if the drone can detect its location through its G.P.S. signal then if it goes near an airport, the manufacturer of the drone can prevent the drone from going inside the airport circumference. So that's good as well, right. What this box does is, because everybody else is much more optimistic and dealing with good bright areas of science and I deal with the dark underbelly of engineering. This is a G.P.S. jammer. So what it would enable me to do is to take out the G.P.S. system of an area of the UK or also emit signals that make it look like an aircraft.

Chris S - So your little drone could become a Boeing 737?

Chris J - Absolutely right.

Adam - And this is a tiny little white box that fits in your hand.

Chris J - Yeah it's it's no bigger than a fairly chunky phone. This one's never been powered up, before we get arrested. OK. Getting permission to test this in the U.K. is a really interesting example when they say “what are you going to do with it.” What we're trying to do with it is to work out, stay one step ahead of the attackers and at the same time be aware of what's possible.

Adam - Other than pranks, what could that be used for, what dangers could that bring?

Chris J - Right now, with the drone we could use geofencing, for example, to protect our airports and other critical areas. But if this was used in a destructive way it could have a massive impact by undermining confidence in air traffic control systems. There are other techniques that in the UK we can employ to get around that. And I'd rather not mention that on the radio.

Adam - Probably a good idea.

Chris J - I think there is a key point here which is that people, in order to be able to protect ourselves, just like I mentioned the National Cyber Security Center, you need to understand how the offensive technology has changed and if you aren't interested in where the next potential attack can come from, then you shouldn't be surprised if you can't defend yourself against it.

Adam - Wise words. Thank you very much Chris.


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