Infantry: The Reality of Hackable Quadcopters

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March 29, 2018: In August 2017 the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) began issuing Chinese made DJI consumer quadcopters to its infantry brigades and border guard battalions in the south. This was expected because Israeli commanders and troops had been having great success bringing their personnel quadcopters with them and finding them invaluable lifesavers. The DJI quadcopters used are the Mavic and Matrice. All infantry company commanders will receive a Mavic Pro, to be used as a pair of “flying binoculars”. The Mavic Pro quadcopter is light (734 g/1.6 pounds) and compact when folded (and takes up about as much space as binoculars). With controller (with small flat screen to view what the camera sees) and case the Mavic Pro weighs less than a kilogram (or two pounds). You can record the high res (4K) video but most of the time military users are in “flying binocular” mode. Troops, especially commanders, will also bring several extra batteries. These take an hour to recharge and most Israeli infantry units in the field are either close to buildings with electrical outlets or have military vehicles that are equipped to recharge portable devices. The Mavic Pro costs about a thousand dollars with one battery. 

Average flight time is 21 minutes and the Mavic Pro can operate up to 7,000 meters from the user. It can fly as high as 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) but in combat usually operates at low (under 100 meters) altitude. The Mavic Pro is the result of nearly a decade of effort that produced several generations of quadcopters, each one smaller, cheaper and easier to use. The Mavic Pro turned out to be sturdy and cheap enough, not to mention easy to use, to be popular with troops both as a leisure time gadget and something very useful while on duty.

Mavic Pro first became available in late 2016. In early 2018 DJI released the Mavic Air, which weighs half as much as the Mavic Pro, is more compact and has the same battery life. The Mavic Air has improved collision avoidance features and is even easier to use than the Mavic Pro. It is also cheaper, at $800.

In urban fighting the Mavic Pro is most useful just looking at nearby rooftops and alleys. This is how infantry platoon and company commanders who brought their personal Mavic Pros with them used them and it was the reports from these users (as well as NCOs and troops who did the same) that drove the decision to make these quadcopters army issued items.

The reports of these early users made it easier to develop a training program and a standard doctrine for these quadcopters. As a practical matter the Mavic Pro is so easy to use that just about any soldier can pick one up and learn to use it as “flying binoculars” in minutes. What it came down to was commanders and troops quickly coming to consider these quadcopters as “flying binoculars” and not some high-tech device.

The border guards were issued larger Matrice quadcopters. These weigh about twice as much as the Mavic, can stay in the air twice as long and can carry night vision cameras. Because they are heavier the Matrice handle better in the wind, which is encountered more often in rural border areas. The border patrol regularly operates at night and has to cover larger areas. So the Matrice makes more sense. The Matrice 100 goes for $3,300 retail but governments usually buy in bulk at discount. .

At the same time (August) the IDF announced it was issuing DJI quadcopters and encouraging troops to continue using their own, U.S. Army ordered its personnel to stop using these same quadcopters. In fact the U.S. Army banned the use of any DJI (the Chinese manufacturer) quadcopters. The reason for the ban was suspected problems with the security of the wireless communication hardware and software used by DJI commercial UAVs. DJI is the largest manufacturer of commercial quadcopters in the world and the American military has been using them for some non-combat jobs as well as providing a lot of them to allies in Syria and Iraq. DJI quadcopters are also popular with Islamic terrorist groups and criminal organizations worldwide. The U.S. Army did not provide a lot of details of what the problems were (or might be) with the DJI quadcopters but ordered its personnel to stop using them immediately and uninstall any DJI software installed in army PCs and disconnect any DJI wireless hardware.

The IDF got in touch their American counterparts to get a better idea of why the American ban was implemented. The Israelis knew that commercial or consumer grade quadcopters lacked military grade encryption but based on Israeli experience (which is pretty much every day) there were no problems if you simply considered these quadcopters “flying binoculars.” A lot of American combat commanders made the same argument but were overruled because the media was making a big deal about the possibility that the Chinese could easily hack the DJI quadcopters. By the end of the year DJI had released upgraded control software that addressed some of these fears. This satisfied the Israelis and most other non-Chinese military users. The Israelis also had confidence in the large number of Israeli hackers (most of them have been in the military) willing and able to dissect the DJI quadcopters and their software looking for vulnerabilities.

It’s no secret that DJI quadcopters have been showing in in combat zones with increasing frequency since 2014. The most popular of these, until the Mavic showed up was the DJI Phantom line of quadcopters. The Phantom 3 showed up in 2015. It cost about a thousand dollars, weighs 3.9 kg (8.6 pounds) can stay in the air about 20 minutes per flight and can go up to 2,000 meters from the operator. The operator can see (at 720p resolution) what is under the Phantom using a small display and capture a higher resolution video (“2.7k” or 1080p) on a 16 GB micro memory card on the UAV. The Phantom 3 was widely available. It is easy to operate and has flight control software that makes it easy to operate and keeps the video image stable. You can equip these with a night vision camera. Max altitude is over 500 meters (1,600 feet) but most Phantoms operate lower down because getting to higher altitude takes time.

DJI kept upgrading its Phantom line of quadcopters from the moment the first one hit the market in 2013 and the latest (early 2018) Mavic Air is the latest model. The Phantom 1 was basically a quadcopter you could add your own GoPro wireless vidcam to. But every few months DJI added new features and major upgrades were introduced as a new mode. Phantom 2 appeared at the end of 2013, Phantom 3 in early 2015 and Phantom 4 a year later. Phantom 3 was the most popular model and Phantom 4 was basically a Phantom 3 with lots more capabilities (4K video, video transmission range of five kilometers) and a higher price (about $1,800 each). Now models of the Phantom continue to appear. But when the Mavic showed up it was somewhat different in that it was deliberately smaller, cheaper, easier to use and more compact. This appealed to those who want to carry it around with them like people used to do with film cameras or still do with binoculars.

There are more expensive ($10,000 or more) and capable quadcopters and fixed wing models. But for the needs of troops and irregular forces in a chaotic combat zone relative cheap ones like Phantom and Mavic got the job done. The sweet spot appears to be the thousand dollars or under for compact quadcopters. These serve the need, get the job done, are easy to operate and you can afford to lose a few. DJI currently has over half the market for these quadcopters and apparently the U.S. Army has discovered vulnerabilities in the data security of the DJI software that could be exploited by the enemy (or already known and used by Chinese military intelligence). Since the Phantom UAVs have GPS and data logging anyone with access to DJI software could gather valuable information on how they are being used by all users, including the U.S. Army and allies it has supplied DJI UAVs to.

The Israelis are pioneers in Internet security software and hacking military and Internet software used by opponents. The Americans appear to be victims of their own paranoia. Not so much on the part of the troops but the politicians and media that thrive on FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) issues that will make some headlines. Meanwhile the flying binoculars definitely make life easier and safer for the troops. The Israelis chose that over FUD.

 


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