Keeping Skies Safe with Drones

by: Michael Plotnikov, Research Fellow

Integration of unmanned aircraft into our national airspace poses complex security challenges that regulatory agencies may not be entirely prepared to face. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has done an excellent job preserving safety in the national airspace, no comprehensive effort has been made to protect critical infrastructure from the air, or to determine how to prevent unmanned aircraft from being hacked and used for malicious purposes.

Unmanned aircraft in the form of radio controlled model aircraft have been around for many years. However, with the addition of innovations such as on-board processors, GPS receivers, cameras, and other sensors, this old technology has evolved into a cyber-physical system that has both expanded capabilities and vulnerabilities.

While new capabilities of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) are well-known, their vulnerabilities, especially related to hacking through communication links, navigation equipment, and malicious software are not well understood. In addition, vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure, particularly ground transportation to malicious UAS attacks should be thoroughly evaluated:

  • First, it is extremely important that technical measures be taken to prevent non-cooperative UASs from penetrating restricted areas by means of reliable detection, tracking, and deterrence. While most of the high-profile infrastructure objects are well-protected or difficult to access at the ground level, they are usually completely exposed to attacks from the sky. The increasing availability of small UAS and their greatly improved capabilities over recent years makes this vulnerability particularly dangerous.
  • Second, technical steps need to be implemented to ensure that wireless communication links used to guide and control unmanned aircraft are secure and cannot be hacked or jammed by hackers who intend to take over control of the aircraft. While the incidence of such successful hacks may indeed be less common, in relation to the general availability of UAS technology to a malicious party, hacking may be particularly dangerous as adversaries get access to a vehicle that is authorized to enter a restricted area and hence may not trigger a timely alarm as would be the case when entry occurs under the malicious control.

Two recent MassDOT research publications address the practices of drones and the impacts of drones around airports: The Practice of UAS in the Transportation System, developed by Research Affiliates Daiheng Ni and Michael Plotnikov, and Current Counter-Drone Technology Solutions to Shield Airports and Approach and Departure Corridors developed by Research Affiliates  Douglas Looze, Michael Plotnikov and Ryan Wicks.  Additional research is needed to determine what cyber-security based systems are available to preserve UAS security and prevent UAS hacking and cyber-attacks as well as what technologies are available to enable timely detection and tracking of unauthorized UASs. To this end, an initial step that should be taken is to conduct a study to determine the costs, capabilities, and limitations of readily available commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) cyber-security systems. From this, Jeff DiCarlo, Project Champion, MassDOT, will soon be kicking off The Application of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in Surface Transportation project.

Keeping the Friendly Skies Safe

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

Image result for drones crashes

Drones are becoming less expensive and easier to purchase, which is increasing their use exponentially. As their use grows, so do reports of aviation safety incidents involving drones. In October 2017, last year a drone crashed into a small commercial plane over Quebec City. This crash was the first confirmed collision between a drone and a commercial plane in North America. The FAA now receives an average of 250 reports per month of drones flying close or in a restricted airspace around airports, this is nearly a 60% increase in reported incidents compared to a year ago.

A recent FAA study simulated the potential dangers of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUASs) or drones, to other aircraft and found that small drones can cause significant damage to other aircraft and more damage than birds of similar size. The study, conducted by researchers at Mississippi State University, looked at the damage a drone can do to vulnerable sections of a plane, including the engines, wing edges, windshield, and horizontal and vertical stabilizers. Video simulating the potential damage are shown on the report web site.

The FAA report also recommends technological solutions such as geofencing, which programs drones to prevent them from entering restricted airspace. Geofencing has already been implemented by numerous drone manufacturers and One Center Affiliates. Dr. Doug Looze and Dr. Michael Plotnikov at the UMass Aviation Center, recently completed a research report on other technology options for keeping airport airspace clear of drones.

Other recommendations from the FAA report include requiring UASs operators to follow current guidelines and restrictions, and enforcing those rules. In addition to the regulations mentioned earlier, drones are restricted from flying within 5 miles of an airport and from flying at night or at speeds over 100 mph. They are also required to yield the right-of-way to manned aircraft.  According to Forbes magazine, some drone operators in the U.S. have been fined in the range of $400 to $5500 for not following UASs regulations, and at least one has been convicted of a crime the pilot of the aforementioned incident was charged with reckless endangerment, after two people were injured by his falling drone.

Bridgewater State University becomes a “LivingLab”

By Uma Shama and Lawrence Harman, Bridgewater State University

This summer, Bridgewater State University (BSU) has become a “LivingLab” with the BSU GeoGraphics Lab using campus parking lots to research Small Unmanned Aircraft System Remote Sensing Platforms for transportation.

Lab co-directors and UMTC Research Affiliates Dr. Uma Shama and Mr. Lawrence Harman are using aircraft systems produced by the company DJI to develop image archives of near-empty parking lots on campus with the research goal of using those archives as a baseline for analysis of BSU’s smart parking initiatives.  The aircraft systems (sUAS and software) are low-cost, but they are still able to create high-resolution 2D and 3D web mapping data that emphasizes transportation flows within the LivingLab area.

The research is also working to create Imagery Collection Techniques that comply with the flight rules established in 2016 by the Federal Aviation Administration.  These rules include restrictions on operating unmanned aircraft over people or private property.

Potential applications of the research outside of Bridgewater State, include real-time monitoring and time-series analysis for evaluating mobility investments made by MassDOT, municipalities, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Partnerships have been a key part of the project’s success.  Collaboration between the BSU Facilities Management and Planning Department, the BSU Police Department, the BSU Aviation Science Department, and the Veterans and Military Affairs Office have been established.  Partnerships have also extended to regional planning and regional transit agencies.

This “LivingLab” initiative builds on a decade of remote sensing research that seeks to apply spatial information technologies to mobility management issues and will help to improve public services locally, regionally, and globally.