The Promising Yet Vulnerable Reality Of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Present-day UAVs contain complex software and hardware components specialized for numerous facets of military life.

We’re living in an age where unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are rapidly influencing major military events, springing warfare into the modern world. Unmanned aircraft have become the star recruit for many high-stake operations, revealing their far-reaching potential time and time again. With each passing year possessing massive security threats, the importance of this man-made soldier continues to rise.

UAVs 101: Learning the Basics

As the acronym suggests, UAVs are aircraft that do not have an onboard pilot or crew. Generally, there are two broad classes used to distinguish different unmanned systems. First, UAVs can be flown remotely, requiring direct or indirect control from a distant human operator. The second classification allows for UAVs to sustain autonomous, self-controlled flight based on pre-programmed instructions. These systems are utilized in many military applications, such as supplying battlefield intelligence, training, combat strikes, communication relay, and search and rescue.

According to the Department of Defense, “The Department currently operates more than 11,000 unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in support of domestic training events and overseas contingency missions. These aircraft range in size from the small RQ-11B Raven to the largest RQ/MQ-4 Global Hawk/Triton, which weighs more than 32,000 pounds.”

UAV warfare can be traced back to the late 1800s. Timeline standouts include the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane of World War I, the OQ-2 Radioplane manufactured during World War II, and the SD-2 Overseer reconnaissance drone of the Cold War. These early innovations are just a few examples that inspired the modern era systems we depend on today.

UAV Highlight: The MQ-9 Reaper

Present day UAVs contain complex software and hardware components specialized for numerous facets of military life. By highlighting just one unmanned vehicle on the roster, the intricacy of each element justly supports the fortitude of contemporary designs.    

The MQ-9 Reaper was used in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the U.S. Air Force’s primary offensive strike UAV. The baseline system of the MQ-9 Reaper is known as the Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MST-B), which completes precise targeting requests with its dynamic visual sensors. Combining a color/monochromatic TV camera, image-intensified camera, infrared sensor, laser illuminator, and a laser ranger finder and designator, the multi-mission UAV performs airstrikes, coordination, and surveillance against high-profile targets.

According to the U.S. Air Force, “The Reaper is also equipped with a synthetic aperture radar to enable future GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions targeting. The MQ-9 can also employ four laser-guided, Air-to-Ground Missile (AGM)-114 Hellfire missiles, which provide highly accurate, low-collateral damage, anti-armor, and anti-personnel engagement capabilities.”

In order to successfully complete intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, the system uses satellite communication links to relay accurate, real-time visual data to areas out of sight from ground troops. Since this UAV is not completely autonomous, the MQ-9 Reaper is remotely controlled by a two-person team consisting of a pilot and sensor operator.

From ground controls to satellite communications, this accumulation of technology is a modern-day feat, but it’s not immune to design weaknesses. Even though unmanned systems remove an onboard physical presence, the imperfections of humanity are subtly at work behind the scenes.

Surviving on the Cyber Frontlines

UAVs aren’t absolute creations. As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to these military aircraft. Both remotely piloted and autonomous systems have established security requirements, but the technology contains multiple points of entry that invite computerized combat.

Attackers charging onto the cyber battlefield will exploit any software vulnerabilities. UAVs are mainly used on a wireless network, and data traveling over these wireless channels provides an opportunity for cyber attackers to capture sensitive, highly confidential military information.

Given this security threat, surveillance data and control commands are often encrypted in an attempt to prevent unauthorized access. But encoding relayed data does not seal all possible weaknesses, leading attackers to exploit modern military encryption techniques. 

In addition to confidentiality risks, UAVs are susceptible to integrity corruption. This can manifest into what is known as the Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attack, where a sender transmits data, attackers corrupt the relayed information, and the receiver unknowingly obtains the modified records. Attackers also debase the authenticity of gathered UAV intelligence by assuming the identity of the original source. This deceives the receiver, who mistakenly accepts the gathered information as credible. If corrupted data infiltrates the unmanned system, then all proceeding decision-based programming will follow a misguided, incorrect path.

UAVs often transmit real-time data for a variety of cyber services, including surveillance and reconnaissance sensors, motion control, and onboard engines. Cyber soldiers can target these software components, crashing the autonomous controls and preventing the time-sensitive delivery of confidential data sent via wireless or satellite links. The pathway towards a UAV software failure comes in many forms.

Attackers can plant viruses, Trojans, and other manifestations of malware into the interconnected communication network. A Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack also achieves a similar end result, flooding the server with incoming traffic from many different points of origin, preventing legitimate requests from entering the overloaded system. Continuing to infiltrate an unmanned vehicle’s method of communication, jammed network channels compromise the availability of real-time data. Since UAVs use wireless radio links to convey information, high-energy random noise signals transmitted from jammers can increase interference to damaging levels. 

Looking Towards an Unmanned Future

While the security vulnerabilities are ever-present and always on the forefront of UAV design and implementation, unmanned vehicles do exhibit considerable benefits to military procedures. With the absence of a human pilot and onboard crew, aircraft can explore high-risk, hazardous terrains and sustain a fatal mechanical malfunction without loss of life.

Even when communications to the main ground control system (GCS) have been severed, UAVs can autonomously carry on the current mission to completion. Stealth, longer loiter time, and reducing human combat exposure rounds out the support of a UAV-centric military.    

Unmanned aircraft have acclaimed modern-day, mechanical super-soldier status. With tumultuous diplomatic tensions and UAV security imperfections heavily looming, it remains unknown whether or not unmanned systems will reshape the future balance of power. Nevertheless, the increasing demand of UAV involvement in covert, high-risk scenarios inevitably launches these aircraft towards a long and distinguished military career.

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