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Drone hacking tool launches in Australia

Drone hacking tool launches in Australia

Department 13's Mesmer platform allows users to commandeer Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in mid-air

Technology that allows drones to be commandeered mid-flight has gone on sale in Australia.

Mesmer, from the ASX-listed company Department 13, works by intercepting the digital radio signal between a drone and its pilot, before using the same communication protocols to take control "by restructuring the communication hierarchy and elevating the priority of one control device over another".

The platform, which allows remotely piloted aircraft to be detected, tracked and commandeered, can also be set to function autonomously, without a “man in the loop”, the company said. It is built on open source software architecture so it can be more easily integrated into existing security and surveillance systems.

The launch follows a demonstration of Mesmer at the Counter Non Traditional Threats Conference at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra at the end of last year.

We’re jammin’

The potential for drones to be used as weapons and for industrial espionage has led to a growing market for anti-drone devices.

Many of these – called jammers – work by emitting radio frequencies that disrupt the remote control and GPS signal being used to fly the drone. This usually causes the drone to follow its 'lost link protocol', and make an immediate controlled vertical landing or fly back to its take-off point.

One such device, the bazooka-style DroneGun from Sydney-based DroneShield was used by the Swiss police force as part of its security operations around the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.

Mesmer meanwhile, allows users to “ultimately persuade the drone to listen to a new control system from other than the original pilot”, the product’s promotional material said.

“It utilises unrivalled protocol manipulation technology, enabling it to take control of drones and land them safely in a defined exclusion zone. Our solution is superior to other technologies available in the market that jam or shoot drones down and pose significant risk for the personnel and infrastructure they are designed to protect,” added Department 13 CEO Jonathan Hunter.

As the platform uses a library-based system of commercially available drones, it can only access and take over recognised types. However, this library covers around 75 per cent of the commercial market and the company plans to increase this figure, Hunter told defensesystems.

Close to the wind

The use of GPS jammers is illegal in Australia – punishable by a fine of up to $270,000 and up to five years in prison if use endangers the safety of another person.

Legislation around taking control of a drone is less explicit, however, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority said anyone operating a drone needed to comply with certain rules.

“Among the general rules for drone operations are the requirement to see the aircraft with your own eyes. Any remote operation of a drone using this technology could therefore be in contravention of our drone regulations,” a spokesperson for the authority said.

“There are also rules that prohibit hazardous operations, meaning that the unmanned aircraft cannot be operated in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, person or property. Items such as jammers may also be prohibited under this regulation.”

The need to counter unwanted drones has led to some novel solutions. This summer, police in the Netherlands will be using trained bald eagles to intercept illegal drones.

"It's a low-tech solution to a hi-tech problem," police spokesman Dennis Janus said.

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Tags unmanned aerial vehiclessecuritysoftwaredroneremotely piloted aircraft

More about Australian Defence ForceAustralian Defence Force AcademyCivil Aviation Safety AuthorityTechnology

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