The buzz around securing commercial drones is getting louder

Hexacopter drone carrying a shipment in a city.

Hexacopter drone carrying a shipment in a city.

Drones have been quietly building their capabilities over the past few years. We’re all used to seeing amazing shots in TV and film shot by them; you can always see an enthusiast in a park flying one around.

Years ago, Amazon, DHL, and La Poste made waves by saying they would be investing in the technology and today they run pilots for drone delivery.

Now, the commercial drone industry keeps growing. In Iceland, Flytrex drones have been approved by the Icelandic Transport Authority to pick up orders from restaurants and stores on one side of Reykjavik and fly them to a designated drop-off point in the suburb of Grafarvogur.

There is also is much excitement how drones will make a significant impact in agriculture, green energy, film and television, construction, media and emergency rescue.

In Volterra, Italy, drones have been used to digitally map the town from the sky, so in the event of an earthquake, local authorities can reconstruct the centuries old town. And late last year, first responders used drones to help find survivors after an earthquake hit Yunnan, China.

But as with all new technologies, there is always a need to define and set rules that govern their safe use. Right now, there are four main stakeholders in the commercial drone ecosystem:

  • Drone manufacturers
  • Drone operators using drones for commercial purposes
  • Public authorities responsible for citizen safety and security
  • Service providers such as camera makers, technology providers such as UTM (Unmanned traffic management) platforms makers

Security in a variety of aspects will quickly become the most important conversation in 2018. According to a Gartner report from 2016, there will be 10 times more commercial drones than manned aircraft by 2020. That’s at least 2.1 million commercial drones flying missions worldwide in two years.

This growth leads to three main security issues we need to discuss:

1. Collision risk

A drone recently caused the closure of a runway at Gatwick Airport in the UK, causing flight diversions. The number of near misses involving drones and airplanes quadrupled between 2015 and 2016, according to a report by the UK Airprox Board last year. And in October last year, the first recorded incident involving a commercial aircraft happened in Quebec City. Fortunately, only minor damaged was incurred as the plane made its final approach to land.

In the US, pilots of manned aircraft reported 1,800 sightings of UAVs in 2016. Although there have been no actual recorded collisions, the FAA has expressed concern over the number of sightings, which increased from 1,200 in 2015.

From August 2015 to January 2016, nearly 600 drones flew too close to planes and airports, according to a report from the FAA, and another FAA report describes how drone-plane near misses and other incidents surged by 46% in the US in 2016.

2. Drone hacking

The IoT Institute shows how hacking is a real security issue for drones, and this is also demonstrated in this article from Forbes. Last year, researchers used a £12 micro-computer aimed at kids to override the controls of a drone. According to E&T Magazine, drones are wide open to hijack threats. If we don’t get a handle on this, drones could quickly be seen as a public menace.

3. Privacy concerns

Drones now come with exceptional cameras. But that raises concerns that they could be used to spy on people. This means that hobbyists will likely face increased law enforcement in the years ahead as complaints rise.

The need for control and wider regulation

There is a need for recognized regulation, that will differ per country, to allow the market to grow responsibly. A strong regulatory framework should secure the use of commercial drones.

The first building blocks will likely be e-registration of drones and pilots, and more will follow over the next few years. It is interesting to note that many stakeholders within the ecosystem welcome the idea of regulation to allow the sector to grow responsibly.

In Europe, these are likely to come into force in 2018, while FAA regulations for commercial drones are already in effect in the US.

Meanwhile in Asia Pacific there are preliminary commercial drone regulations already in effect in some countries. These will need to be reinforced.

The role of UTM when it comes to implement regulations.

In many countries, some categories of commercial drones will be connected via GSM networks to unmanned traffic management (UTM) platforms, or ground stations, sending and receiving a range of information including telemetry, flight plan updates, or command and control data.

Drone ecosystem

When used for business purposes, drones can collect and upload sensitive data in a cloud environment.

In this context, trusting the connectivity and information exchanged is key to protect people, companies, and strategic country assets

UTM systems and platforms will allow regulations to be implemented to enable safe, secure and efficient low-altitude operations. They cover the full flight lifecycle from before operations, during flight, and after completion for full traceability.

The technology to secure the drone ecosystem is ready, now we’re just waiting for the regulations to speed up adoption of commercial drones.

The key concepts for a trusted drone ecosystem

To close, it’s worth pointing out that a fully-evolved drone ecosystem will be able to:

  • Identify drones and their pilots remotely
  • Connect drones seamlessly to cellular networks
  • Secure all communication channels between drones and ground stations; and between drones and UTM.

In our next blog post we will cover how we can enable trust in the sector, and argue why securing the flow of data within the ecosystem will underpin its success.

You can find out more about Gemalto’s efforts to advance cyber security in this new field by visiting:
Cyber security for the commercial drone industry