By 2022, the global commercial drones market is projected to reach close to $11B. The consumer demand is being driven by cutting-edge experiences that leverage innovative cameras, sensors, and apps.

Unfortunately, criminals are exploiting this user-friendly remote-piloted technology that allows them to easily engage in espionage, smuggling and drug delivery at borders, prisons, and neighborhoods. As drones produce a wealth of visual and travel log data, this can become critical digital evidence that is traceable back to the owner.

To meet the surge of interest in this competitive market, manufacturers are in a race to increase the power and feature set of their drones. The functionality is evolving so rapidly that one-button launchable drones offer the potential to cause havoc while ensuring anonymity for their operator. As advancements in this technology continue, legislators are hard pressed to keep laws up-to-date with the capabilities of drones.

As drones become more involved in controversial scenarios, some criminal, and some that have yet to be classified as such, law enforcement and border agencies need to pay attention to their technological advancement and abuse. Let’s look at 5 ways drones are becoming a direct and indirect threat to the public.

1. Breech of Restricted Airspace

With 250 illegally flown drones reported over restricted airspaces in 2018 in Florida alone, pilots and plane engines are in serious danger of accidentally coming into contact with them. The proliferation of these types of powerful consumer drones capable of compromising restricted airspace is greatly complicating both threat prevention and countermeasures. Agencies governing at-risk airspaces are calling for regulations to be updated in the US to target drone operators who cannot be currently prosecuted unless they commit a local or state crime.

A recent drone intrusion at the Newark Liberty International Airport highlights the fragility of transportation hubs that are at the mercy of hobbyists or criminals. When an incoming flight pilot noticed a drone nearby, all flights in and out of the airport were temporarily halted for 2 hours.

The Gatwick Airport in London also experienced numerous drone sightings over 3 days that caused a significant shutdown. Normal operations resumed after a 36-hour closure that led to millions of dollars in losses for airlines as hundreds of flights were canceled, delayed and diverted. Easyjet reported losses totaling almost $20M and caused them to label this event as a “wake-up call” for airports.

2. Thievery from Above

Drones that can be positioned to view door code entry, personal ATM codes or private property assets are augmenting the reach and efficiency of thievery. In the UK, a drone was spotted recording pin codes undetected by bank customers below. The operator of the drone was later caught but police were unable to confirm criminal intent.

Tech-savvy citizens and law enforcement are beginning to suspect a connection between drone activity and burglary. Recently, after 4 days of reported drone activity over Cambridgeshire, UK, a house was robbed with suspicious efficiency and swift execution. The nature of the robbery has put law enforcement on alert for possible new tactic exploited by thieves.  

3. Drone Swarms and Obstruction of Justice

During an FBI hostage raid in Denver Colorado, criminals used a swarm of drones to decrease the agents’ situational awareness by harassing them with high-speed low passes at their heads. This proved successful and again exposed an unexpected vulnerability only possible by the use of drones.

It is now possible for drone swarms to reach group sizes in the 100’s that can be remotely coordinated and preprogrammed with underslung weaponry or chemical agents. The well-known terrorist organization ISIS has been applying this method by repurposing commercially available drones to bomb and harass communities in Syria and Iraq. The ongoing challenge is to detect, identify and eliminate these types of coordinated attacks in urban areas as well as war zones.

4. Smuggling Contraband to Prisons: Weapons, Drugs, Phones

More than a dozen states in the US report drones dropping contraband to inmates at prisons. From cell phones to weapons to drugs, the capacity of the drone payload is sufficient to pose a real security threat. The increased range and automation of drones is also allowing operators to remotely navigate at a range of 20km’s from their drop-off point.

Simply jamming the radio frequencies used to operate drones is tricky as other aircraft in the area would be affected. At present, any attempt to jam frequencies requires special permission from the Federal Communications Commission. Other countermeasures being explored include audio, radar, and laser systems designed to detect, intercept or disable incoming drones.

A correctional facility in the UK has begun to exercise the capability of deflecting drones that compromise its airspace by activating sensors which are designed to overload unmanned aerial vehicles.

5. Assassination Attempt

In August of 2018, during a speech by the Venezuelan president on live television in Caracas, two drones carrying explosives attempted to detonate on the main stage where he spoke. Instead, they exploded in the air before reaching their target, delivering a shock to the soldiers and mayhem to the spectators in the streets.

The drone used in the attack was a repurposed DJI M600, designed originally for professional photography. With a payload of 1kg of C4 military grade explosives, it reached a speed of 40 km’s before it was brought down.

Law enforcement must be equipped with relevant digital forensic tools to extract their media files, analyze the travel logs, and quickly identify the owners.

Extraction of Digital Evidence: DJI Drone App and SkyPixel Social Network

With over 70% of the drone market, DJI’s drone technology and apps have secured a growing worldwide customer base. DJI also maintains the world’s largest aerial imaging community on their SkyPixel social network. Their DJI Go 4 mobile app assists drone operators to record the world from above with video and images.

With the release of Cellebrite Physical Analyzer 7.14, digital forensics examiners can access data directly from a selection of DJI drones as well as the DJI app and corresponding user account on the SkyPixel social network. User profile and drone flight log data include; date, distance, flight time, location, video, and imagery. SkyPixel user profile data can assist examiners to verify if any collaboration was performed on specific videos as well as track tags, follows and more.

Learn more about the Cellebrite Physical Analyzer 7.14 release here.

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