Is drone geofencing software too easy to hack?

Engineers who run a ‘drone hacking’ website say that software designed to prevent drones from flying near airports is very easy to bypass.

Drone producers, such as Chinese giant DJI, produce UAVs with inbuilt geofencing software which creates ‘virtual walls’ stopping crafts from being able to enter restricted air space near airports or military bases.

There are some pretty important reasons to have geofencing software in place, particularly in an era of high-profile cases of drones flying near airports. The Gatwick airport chaos in December 2018 caused by a rogue drone or drones, makes the case for having good geofencing systems installed on your drone particularly strong.  Although it is currently illegal in most countries to fly in close proximity to airports, helicopter pads or other protected zones, this hasn’t stopped some irresponsible drone pilots from doing so. Geofencing software is designed to remove the possibility or temptation of drones flying in areas where they shouldn’t.

The Sun (not the most reliable news source, I know) interviewed several engineers who work on software cracking websites and they say that anyone online can easily download a patch and install it on their drone which instantly renders the geofencing software useless.

Incidences of drones flying near airports is the primary reason manufacturers such as DJI have installed geofencing software on their drones.

The engineers behind websites such as NoLimitDronez decided to remain anonymous but told The Sun that they did not agree with manufacturers imposing arbitrary restrictions on where they can and cannot fly. One man involved in the drone hacking website argued that geofencing was unfair to customers by making an analogy to cars. Most cars are capable of travelling at least 100 miles per hour (160kph), a speed which is illegal in most of the world. Car manufacturers don’t, however, impose a limit that stops the car from travelling faster the national speed limit.

Quite why people would wish to have the ability to fly closer to airports and restricted zones is beyond me but obviously, if users of these websites are willing to donate 3800 pounds (5000 USD) to develop the next patch to break DJI’s geofencing software, it must be popular.

Christian Struwe, Head of Public Policy Europe at DJI, spoke with the sun and warned that some drone owners have “a complete disregard for safety and local rules and regulations”.

“It is these people who use software to maliciously hack our drones to remove safety features that are designed to provide users with information that will help them make smart decisions about where and when to fly,” he said.

“DJI does not condone any software alterations of its drones and would advise users to strongly consider the potential consequences of their actions.”

The NoLimitDronez website is currently crowdfunding in order to fund new hacks into DJI systems. The website claims that it condones dangerous flying and but simultaneously argues that because DJI drones are generally expensive, users should be free to fly their drones as they please.

How do we make it harder to bypass geofencing software?

The Sun interviewed cybersecurity expert Dean Fernando who said that the easy bypass of geofencing systems is why governments should implement much stricter regulations around drones and internet-connected devices in general.

He argued that drone manufacturers should be compelled to keep their devices updated with the latest security software. He said the rush to quickly release drones to market meant that some of the software that came readily installed on the devices had significant holes that could be exploited by the likes of drone hacking websites.

“With IoT entering our houses and travelling with us on our wrists, it is paramount that vendors realise the responsibility they have towards the public, which is no longer to just keep their data secure but to keep them safe.”

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