Above Austin, UAS helps Praetorian explore the Internet of Things

By Patrick C. Miller | August 27, 2015

From remotely adjusting the heat and light in homes to automated manufacturing lines, the technology known as the Internet of Things (IoT) that enables wireless communications between networked devices is becoming more and more prevalent in everyday life.

It took an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flying over parts of Austin, Texas, equipped with a special sensor to detect Internet-connected devices to determine the extent of such networks, what comprises them and what they looked like.

Praetorian—a security firm—provided the sensor while DroneSense—a startup unmanned aerial systems (UAS) company—provided the UAV platform and pilot that enabled an overview of what IoT networks look like in some residential and business areas of Austin where both companies are headquartered.

Paul Jauregui, Praetorian’s vice president of marketing, said the company is an information security assessment and advisory firm.

“Large organizations—the Fortune 5000 and venture-backed startups working in emerging technologies—contact our team to come in and identify risks in the form of vulnerabilities in networks or applications,” he said.

Recently, Jauregui said businesses have developed a great deal of interest in the new product ecosystems known as the Internet of Things, which have been made possible by the cloud, increased computing power and lower technology costs.

“It’s definitely one of the hot emerging spaces, not only in the consumer arena, but also managing industrial controls in manufacturing and retail services—all the way down to the connected car,” he explained.

Most IoT devices communicate through an open, global wireless standard known as ZigBee, which provides the IoT foundation enabling “smart” devices to work together to improve comfort and efficiency. These devices send out a signal beacon to communicate with each other.

Praetorian developed a “ZigBee sniffer,” a sensor equipped with several special radios that listen for Zigbee beacons. The sensor has the ability to communicate in the same machine language used by the smart devices.

“Within 30 to 100 meters of any given device, it can detect and identify what those devices are and then connect that back to the GPS data,” Jauregui said.

Initially, Praetorian tested its sensor on the ground by driving it around, but it soon became apparent that mounting it on a UAS might not only be faster, but also more accurate. That’s where Chris Eyhorn, founder of DroneSense, entered the picture.

“We definitely saw this as a good opportunity to work with Praetorian and help enable better collection using the device with our autonomous flight planning software for the platform we’re building,” Eyhorn said. “That’s where we joined forces for the drone and the actual flying aspect of it.”

The results obtain by putting the ZigBee sniffer in the air on the DroneSense UAV surprised everyone.

“It definitely exceeded my expectations,” Jauregui said. “We spent quite a bit of time with the device on the ground. So we had an understanding of what to expect, but the drone really elevated that. It removed a lot of the barriers you find when operating on the ground such as different obstructions to radio frequencies—wall, trees, cars—everything gets in the way and reduces the signal strength to our sensing package.”

For Eyhorn, seeing just how many IoT devices were in use in the areas of Austin surveyed was something of a shock.

“All these GE lightbulbs and all these things I have connected are also broadcasting a signal,” he noted. “It’s not just my wireless router any more. For me on a personal note, it’s been quite eye-opening just to raise the awareness of what’s actually being broadcast outside the wireless router at home.”

To deal with privacy concerns, Jauregui said Praetorian was careful to release limited information on what it found.

“As we collect more and more data, we’re going to then turn to analyzing the protocol in the data that we’ve brought in to do some more thorough security analysis to better understand the space,” he said. “For now, it’s really about enumerating those networks and devices out in the field and deriving what their function may be.”

From the perspectives of Praetorian and DroneSense, the combination of sensor and UAV technology will eventually provide greater knowledge on how to secure IoT networks from those who seek to exploit them for nefarious reasons.

“This project was really some of our first big steps into exploring the space from a research perspective, looking at it through the eyes of the security and risk lens,” Jauregui said.


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