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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 5

Better Security Measures Are Needed Before Drones Roam the U.S. Airspace

Fleets of unmanned aircraft may soon scan terrain for forest fires and deliver FedEx packages. Yet drones' security flaws allow them to be readily hijacked with simple technologies

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On August 2, 2010, a U.S. Navy helicopter wandered lazily into the skies of the highly restricted airspace that extends like an invisible dome over the American capital. The event might have merited nothing more than a routine log entry for air-traffic controllers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, except for one disturbing detail. The helicopter had no human pilot. The aircraft had no cutout space for windows, and its cockpit was filled with nothing more than electronic instrumentation. It was a drone.

The MQ-8B Fire Scout, a 1,429-kilogram, 9.7-meter-long drone, had experienced what investigators later called a “software issue,” whereby its communications link had been severed with human operators, who sat helplessly in a ground-control room at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. To make matters worse, the drone failed to execute software instructions that would have forced it to return to its base. The Fire Scout, used for reconnaissance off warships, had wandered into the same airspace that Air Force One uses when it takes off from and lands at Andrews Air Force Base.

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