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Tartu students prove drones are easy targets for hijacking

Erasmus exchange students of the Institute of Computer Science of the University of Tartu have demonstrated that it is possible to fully take over the control of commercial drones.

Statistics show that in Europe, the use of drones for recreational, business and military purposes increases by 30 percent each year. This raises concerns about drone security.

“There is no protection for the drones' rightful controllers, so anyone could gain their control and attempt something malevolent. This may create an undesired threat to this fast-evolving commercial and security-related area,” said Head of the Institute of Computer Science and Professor of Bioinformatics Jaak Vilo.

Hence, Manuel Kramer and Martin Schmeisser, exchange students from the University of Bremen, Germany, embarked on a project which aimed to fully take over the control of commercial drones. Supervised by Rafik Chaabouni, a visiting researcher from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and Amnir Hadachi, a Research Fellow of the University of Tartu, they managed to successfully complete the project in a couple of months.

Kramer and Schmeisser first proved that it was possible to spy on the video stream sent out by a drone without getting detected. They also showed that it it possible to hijack the drone in several ways, concluding that the communication of most drones is currently insecure, making drones vulnerable. Vilo said that by exposing such hijacking scenarios the researchers want to raise the awareness of the risks of sloppy data security at the time of more and more autonomous flying machines.

Critics have, however, pointed out that the study only involved a very specific model controlled through WiFi and the hijacking scenarios the students used are not applicable to other types of drones.

Editor: M. Oll, S. Tambur

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