Dropout drones raise spectre of sabotteurs and jammers

Dropout drones raise spectre of sabotteurs and jammers.

LAST weekend’s mysterious mass drone malfunction during a foreshore light show was not the first time bots have dropped from the sky.

Similar incidents overseas have been blamed on software failure, saboteurs and even consumer devices interfering with drones. 

Perth council hired Perth-based company Drone Sky Shows to run sky shows on November 19 and 20 with 500 drones in formation to display Christmas-themed images and advertise event sponsor, Roy Hill mining company.

On the second night drones started dropping out of the sky mid-performance, one-by-one and then a few at a time. Some rallied and struggled to return to their comrades, others just plummeted into the Swan River. 

Fifty drones in total fell into the water and divers went out the next day to retrieve them. 

Drone Sky Shows is investigating why they went down and is looking into whether there was some kind of interference, but hasn’t yet found an answer. It’s normal for one or two drones to fail but Drone Sky Shows has never had so many drop before.

Each drone cost about $2000, making for a $100,000 bill which will be footed by the operators rather than Perth council. 

Perth lord mayor Basil Zempilas addressed the drone drop at the November 22 council meeting, saying Saturday night’s show was “flawless” but “Sunday night it is well documented that some of the drones were not on their best behaviour.

“I’m very pleased that all of the safety procedures and protocols were observed as they should be, exclusion zones and the like,” meaning the drones fell into the drink rather than risking coming down on a person. 

Mr Zempilas said Perth’s next  drone event was a January 26 hybrid of drones and fireworks, with two more in February.

“But of course that is accepting and assuming that we have all of the necessary safety clearance, and with everything we do it will be safety first.”

There’s been similar incidents overseas when large numbers of drones have dropped at once, sometimes by accident and other times by malfeasance, by either pranksters, political protestors, and in one case a rival drone company.

Melbourne-based drone security company DroneSec trains operators to harden their systems against hackers and other interference. It published a report in August 2021 after a drone show in Taiwan saw 48 out of 800 bots crash, with the cause listed in official reports as “signal” or “electromagnetic interference”.

In Hong Kong in 2018, 46 drones fell, possibly targeted by a $50 GPS jammer. 

DroneSec’s report said “there is now a need for mitigation strategies into drone [shows] as a safety and public precaution”, suggesting how to beat wifi hacks or build systems that automatically land drones if they lose GPS signal.

Drone Sky Shows managing director Josh Van Ross told us via email: “We are looking into all possibilities at the moment and we will know more in the near future.

“I am aware of most of these incidents and the risks associated with malicious actors and that really all the mitigation methods available are just detection, but unfortunately no blocking technology.”


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