Banged up in police custody and identified only by his surname, Yuan, a 23-year-old drone aficionado from the eastern city of Hangzhou apparently hadn’t foreseen just how much trouble he would get into for flying his Mavic Pro over the city last month.
Intending to snap a few stunning photographs of the sunset over one of the country’s most picturesque cities, Yuan flew his gadget — a consumer-grade aerial photography drone made by DJI, the world’s leading civilian drone manufacturer — to a height of 450 meters. In addition to capturing the last rays of the winter’s evening, he steered his drone so close to aircraft flight paths that his camera recorded video footage of dozens of passenger jets, their serial numbers clearly visible, coming in to land at nearby Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport. Unfortunately for Yuan, the eight-second clip he later posted online incurred the wrath of the authorities.
The day after Yuan’s arrest, China’s Ministry of Public Security issued an update to Article 46 of the country’s law on public order, recommending that unlawful pilots of drones — also known as “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) — be served with 5 to 10 days’ detention. The new law is currently at the consultation stage, where it will remain until Feb. 16.
The proposed stricter controls also require pilots to restrict their flights either to indoor areas or to within a 500-meter radius of the pilot in sparsely populated areas. Drone-lovers are not allowed to fly at a height exceeding 120 meters without a UAV pilot’s license and prior permission from air traffic control.
Up to now, most of the world’s consumer drones have been sold in the United States, where the Federal Aviation Administration anticipates that private drone ownership will increase from 1.9 million units in 2016 to 4.3 million by 2020 — in addition to the 2.7 million commercial drones expected to be filling American skies by the turn of the decade. Public interest in photography drones has grown rapidly in China as well, with consumers snatching up 80,000 vehicles in the first quarter of last year alone, according to data from market consultancy firm IDC.
Yet alongside the proliferation of drones in our skies is a growing need to hack into them. The transformation of drones from cutting-edge military equipment to household gadgetry has brought an upsurge of powerful, modestly priced household technology, but this has been somewhat checked by growing security and privacy concerns. In the U.S., private drones have been flown into the grounds of the White House, sparking panic among security staff. Across the Atlantic, a prison in Bedford in the U.K. was the site of a smuggling operation involving a drone carrying illegal drugs and weapons.
Security fears are stoking the coals of a global anti-drone industry that according to major research firm Markets and Markets will be valued at $1.1 billion by 2022. As most drones are controlled via radio communication technology, one way to bring them down is to blast the target vehicle with high-power interference, which suppresses the user’s control signals and forces the drone to land or return from whence it came.
Another method is to trick the drone into thinking it is in a no-fly zone. Consumer drones use civilian GPS systems to navigate through space, and these systems feature built-in programs designed to abort the flight if they enter restricted airspace. Feeding drones false GPS data allows the hacker to simulate the craft’s response to entering a no-fly zone and thereby ground it. Alternatively, several well-established hacking technologies — such as SkyJack, a program developed by American hacker and entrepreneur Samy Kamkar — allow users to hijack and control drones in midair.
Of course, if both of these high-tech methods don’t cut the proverbial mustard, there’s always the possibility of the good ol’ anti-drone rifle: A company called Shanghai Houhong sells one model with a range of 2,000 meters.
Anti-drone technology is a highly sensitive area. It must keep consumers safe and maintain a low price point, all while not damaging the target drone’s hardware. However, the reverse side of the coin is that these technologies can also wreak havoc in the hands of people with malicious intent. In the future, drone manufacturers will have to subject their products to more stringent security checks, as the existence of malware in the design, production, and management processes may make drones vulnerable to unlawful activities.
In China, too, government law enforcement agencies will need to regulate drones through specific legislation and technical standards. Recently, the municipal government of Shenzhen, where DJI is based, released three new guidelines designed to allow authorities to identify whom the drone belongs to, whether it has been flown illegally, and if it conforms to rigorous product standards. Beyond that, the government will probably look to install an emergency backdoor command — essentially a system allowing it to take control of any drone in the event of an emergency.
Yet currently, domestic anti-drone technology is still in the exploratory stage. Radio hijacking has become difficult since UAV manufacturers have begun to encrypt their radio signals. As a result, current anti-drone technologies generally rely on signal interference. Looking to the future, we should expect the Chinese drone industry to shift resources toward establishing active detection — essentially, a radar system designed to catch drones before they misbehave — and then, in turn, to a defense control system and interference-detecting radar capable of identifying, controlling, and capturing drone technology abusers.
(Header image: A drone is seen flying above residential buildings in Xingtai, Hebei province, Aug. 31, 2016. Huo Hongjun/VCG)