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The Pentagon wants unhackable drone helicopters by 2018

The Pentagon wants unhackable drone helicopters by 2018
Andrew Tarantola
Andrew Tarantola|@terrortola|March 16, 2015 4:40 PM

Losing a UAV or two to enemy forces has become an unavoidable cost of modern warfare. But there's still a big difference between having a Scan Eagle turn up missing and, say, the Pentagon's autonomous MH-6 Little Bird -- namely because only one of those is armed to the talons with chainguns, Hydra rockets and Hellfire missiles. That's why DARPA engineers are working to harden the Little Bird's electronic defenses against external hacking and keep the pint-sized killing machine from going AWOL.

According to a report from NextGov, engineers are re-coding the Little Bird's communications computer to prevent anyone other than the designated DoD operator from seizing control of the vehicle, its weapons or its surveillance gear. Reportedly, DARPA is integrating the same unbreakable encryption scheme that it installed on a commercial quadcopter last May.

"Many things have computers inside and those computers are networked to talk to other things," Kathleen Fischer, former program manager for DARPA's HACMS (High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems) program explained to DefenseTech. "Whenever you have that situation, you have the possibility for remote vulnerabilities where somebody can use the network connection to take over and get the device to do what the attacker wants instead of what the owner wants."

To combat this, the HACMS program helps to identify and eliminate potential security threats on a systemic level using a proprietary programming language fundamentally unlike the C++ normally employed in military computer systems.

"We've developed a new programming language that is provably free from those vulnerabilities," Lee Pike, cyber-physical systems research lead for Galois, said in a statement. "The approach is to transition the programming language we've developed, called Ivory, to Boeing so that they can rewrite their systems."

Should the Little Bird upgrades go according to plan, the HACMS program could find use in future UAV projects as a means of securing their communications systems on a system-wide level. HACMS program lead John Launchbury added, "The intent is to conduct an experiment to prove that these new coding techniques can create secure code at full scale." Boeing reportedly expects to have roughly 70 percent of the code -- nearly 100,000 lines of it -- rewritten ahead of planned test flights later this summer and hopes to have fully encrypted Little Birds flying within three years.

The Pentagon wants unhackable drone helicopters by 2018