Pentagon on Path to Launch Hacker-Proof Boeing Drone by 2018

Boeing's unmanned little bird drone.

Boeing's unmanned little bird drone. Boeing

Defense industry programmers are rewriting software on the helicopter drone to prevent outsiders from digitally infiltrating the aerial vehicle.

An unhackable Boeing Little Bird unmanned aircraft should be in flight around the end of 2017, Defense Department and company officials say.

Right now, defense industry programmers are rewriting software on the helicopter drone to encapsulate its communications computer. That way, no outsiders can steer the unmanned aerial vehicle to strike, say, civilians, or tamper with surveillance video to mask adversary targets.

An impermeable commercial quadcopter drone was successfully flown last May using the same type of technology.

"The intent is to conduct an experiment to prove that these new coding techniques can create secure code at full scale," said John Launchbury, who leads the program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The concept -- while not new -- is becoming more vital as more computers are embedded into systems that carry precious cargo. 

"Cyberattacks on your PC -- they can steal information and they can steal money, but they don’t cause physical damage, whereas cyberattacks in a UAV or a car can cause physical damage and we really don’t want to open that can of worms," said Kathleen Fisher, the previous program manager of the DARPA project. The initiative, which launched in 2012, is called High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems.

In addition to Boeing, National ICT Australia, avionics company Rockwell Collins and computer science firm Galois are crafting the secure software. 

Hypothetically speaking, the worst-case scenario would be having an adversary like the Islamic State take command of a weaponized UAV and direct it to fire on a friendly target, Fisher said.

Or potentially even worse, the bad actor substitutes surveillance video showing U.S. allied forces with video showing ISIL activity so the decision-maker on base unknowingly fires at the allies. 

"Boeing is on track to replace all the code on the vehicle by the end" of the program, Launchbury said, which lasts for 4.5 years. This particular Little Bird does not carry any weapons systems, he said.

The software will isolate all communications between the ground station and the aircraft from the outside world, according to program participants.

"Its main purpose is to rewrite and secure the mission computer on board the Little Bird," Launchbury said. 

Close to 100,000 lines of code -- or 70 percent of the mission computer’s code -- will have been replaced in time for a planned flight this summer, he said. By comparison, modern cars require around 100 million lines of code to get out of the garage. 

Automobiles have long been susceptible to computer intrusions.

Around 2010, researchers from University of California, San Diego and the University of Washington were able to access a car’s internal network to disengage the brakes, making it difficult for the driver to stop. Another test showed how ordinary car parts can enable these sorts of attacks, such as FM radios, Bluetooth connections and wireless tire pressure sensors.

Boeing officials said in an emailed statement that the company's "goal is to enhance all Boeing developed Unmanned Little Bird aircraft software using [the new] technologies by the end of the program."

Typically, most commercial and military vehicles are powered by general purpose programming languages, such as C or C++, which have a number of security holes, said Lee Pike, Galois research lead for cyber-physical systems. He facilitated the hacker-proof minidrone flight in 2014. 

"We’ve developed a new programming language that is provably free from those vulnerabilities,” he said. “The approach is to transition the programming language we’ve developed, called Ivory, to Boeing so that they can rewrite their systems.”

Trustworthy software for critical systems is not unprecedented. It’s called “sound engineering design,” said Ron Gula, chief executive officer of Tenable Network Security.  

“I would hope nuclear and power production plants don't have a control system that is able to be overridden and put into a nonsecure state," he said. 

Hack-proof technology cannot compensate for faulty construction. The Little Bird might still fall from the sky or stop transmitting video, yet that would be the work of the system's manufacturer or a legitimate user, Fisher said. It would not be the work of an intruder.

The Little Bird “could still crash, but that would be because the system as it was shipped had a flaw -- it wouldn’t be crashing because a malicious party did something to manipulate it,” she said. “Somebody from the outside can’t break in and access it, and then cause it to do something that it wasn’t supposed to do."