Tech by VICE

Amazon Prime Air Drones Will Automatically Land If Shot At

Retailer patents “countermeasures for threats” for its Prime Air delivery drones.

by Ben Sullivan
Dec 22 2016, 4:30pm

Image: Amazon

Civilian drones are easy targets, even for hackers. While blasting them out of the sky may take small amounts of critical thinking, taking advantage of lapse cybersecurity credentials on flying drones has proven to be an effective and relatively straightforward method to ruin someone's day.

Ergo, Amazon's Prime Air plan to deliver consumer parcels via drone better come with some security, right?

The retailer received a US patent this week for anti-jamming technology that *should* safeguard its Prime Air drones and their packages from modern day hijackers.

The first area of the patent essentially relies on Amazon's drone mesh communications network—the network established by a fleet of its delivery drones, or UAVs—to distribute information between each individual drone pertaining altitude, location, and heading.

"The first UAV may be directed to a safe location to land or park,"

"A first UAV may receive external data from a second UAV using the mesh network," explains Amazon. "Disagreement between data generated by the first UAV with external data from the second UAV may result in the determination that the first UAV is compromised. Remedial actions may be taken, such as the first UAV may be directed to a safe location to land or park, may receive commands from another UAV, and so forth."

Another safeguard for Prime Air drones, described in the patent, would be in analyzing the directionality of signals received by the UAVs. Antennas and optical directors on the drones can be configured to provide the direction, in relation to the drone, of a source of a signal. Using data about known signal sources, the drone could determine the correct direction friendly signals should be coming from. "Should the direction as received differ from the expected direction, a compromise may be determined," reads the patent document. "For example, signals from a satellite navigation system may be expected to come from an overhead direction. Receipt of satellite navigation signals from below an aerial UAV in flight may result in a determination of a compromise, such as resulting from malicious or inadvertent jamming from a terrestrial radio transmitter."

Even if a drone is compromised, Amazon also outlines how protective devices such as airbags and parachutes could protect the UAV in the event of a crash. "Autorotation of one or more rotors" in response to a compromised UAV is also mentioned. In fact, as per FOIA documents seen by Motherboard regarding Prime Air flights in the United Kingdom, Amazon already employs mechanisms that help a drone "land or intentionally cease flying in the event of disruption to or a failure of any of its control systems."

Image: Amazon

But of course, no matter how advanced hackers get, there's always the old-fashioned tried and tested method of disabling a drone: shooting at it. Amazon thinks it's got this covered too, illustrating how a bow and arrow attack on a Prime Air drone would result in the UAV safely landing itself to get out of trouble. An example shows an attacker firing an arrow at an airborne drone, only for that arrow to miss. An onboard "compromise module", explains Amazon, would detect the presence of the arrow and then activate a fail-safe module that would direct the UAV towards the ground. "In some implementations, the fail-safe module (figure 140, above) may be configured to direct the UAV (figure 102, above) to take evasive maneuvers, navigate to a safe landing or parking zone for inspection, and so forth." Naturally, an arrow flies through the air much slower than a bullet fired from a gun, so it can be assumed Prime Air deliveries will still be vulnerable to small arms fire.

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