NICTA secures US$18M to protect drones from attack

The US government is worried that its unmanned robots and drones may fall into the wrong hands if hacked, which has lead it to reach out to National ICT Australia to help protect them.

National ICT Australia (NICTA) has sealed a US$18 million contract with the US government to protect unmanned and autonomous drones from turning on their owners due to remote attacks.

The project is meant to protect systems related to supporting and controlling unmanned ground and air vehicles, and medical devices. It falls under the portfolio of the US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), or more specifically, its High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems (HACMS) program.

DARPA has been the lead agency behind high-profile autonomous ground robots such as the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), which can accompany troops through adverse terrain, and more recently, the Pet-Proto robot, which can climb stairs, or even scale short walls.

DARPA's HACMS program, on the other hand, is meant to ensure that any of its systems that have any sort of networking capability, including LS3 and Pet-Proto, are protected against remote attacks.

Over 4.5 years, NICTA scientists will work alongside other members in an international consortium led by Rockwell Collins. These include Boeing, Galois and the University of Minnesota. Their job is more specific to flying robots, however, and the team will need to develop a complete, formally proven architecture to protect drones' control and communication systems.

Exactly which unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) will be protected has not been disclosed, but they could include UAVs such as the Nano Hummingbird — a small, flapping-winged reconnaissance robot that beams video back to its owners.

To ensure continued safe operation even while under an attack, the team's software will be subjected to white box attacks — where all of the details regarding the implementation of the software and its security measures are known or given to the attackers.

"NICTA's selection for this project reflects our status as world leaders in the verification of operating systems," said Scientia Professor Gernot Heiser, leader of NICTA's Software Systems Research Group.

"Now we will have the opportunity to greatly extend the scale, aiming to ensure the safety of a complete, real-world system — something considered impossible only a few years ago."