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Hack-proof drones? This could make it happen

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A Predator B unmanned aircraft taxis at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas. ((AP Photo/Eric Gay, File))

Drones are an integral part of modern warfare, which is just one of many reasons why it would be unusually bad if malefactors were able to hack them. (See the recently finished season of 24.) seL4, an ironclad drone programming protocol, is about to go open-source, allowing both governments and enthusiasts to keep their autonomous flying machines secure.

seL4 is an operating system kernel that acts as a go-between for hardware and software in an electronic device. It was developed by the National Information and Communications Technology Australia (NICTA) and the American defense company General Dynamics C4 systems. Up until now, the program has only been available to governments and defense companies.

MORE: How to Hack Other People's Drones for Less Than $400

While confirmed drone hacks have only happened in laboratories, seL4 could go a long way to ensuring that they do not happen out in the wild. Researchers have proven mathematically that the kernel has no software bugs (hardware bugs could be a different story). While this does not automatically make drones secure, it does mean that seL4 is a solid basis for keeping drones from being hacked, provided that users build smart security protocols around it.

In practice, seL4 could allow programmers to avoid a costly kill-switch. Governments generally program their drones to fall out of the sky if they detect hacking. seL4 keeps functions compartmentalized, and could allow drones to shrug off the hack and remain airborne until their next round of maintenance.

Since hackers are not likely to target consumer drones, enthusiasts may not get too much out of seL4, but they have been able to try it for themselves from Jul. 28. The protocol is compatible with a variety of different processors (including the common x86 platform), and even supports a Linux overlay, if that's your scene.

Otherwise, citizens can rest a bit easier with the knowledge that government drones are not likely to turn on their owners anytime soon. Probably.

 

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