AT&T And NASA To Build National Drone Tracking System

The company wants to protect drones from hackers

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Nov 15, 2016 at 11:15 AM ET

The largest telecommunications company in the world wants to serve as a watchdog for all drones in the United States — and in the process, play a major role in supervising the national airspace.

On Nov. 10, AT&T announced that it was collaborating with NASA to develop an Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management program to allow agencies to monitor drones. An AT&T release states this program will make it safer for drone operators to plan and monitor flight paths, navigate drones, and use drones for surveillance. The company stated that its main focus is to lower the risk of drone-related cyberattacks.

Many commercial drones available today are easy to hack and some hackers have even exposed vulnerabilities in drones used by government agencies. Someone taking over a hobbyist’s DJI Phantom might not be a national crisis, but a hacker could theoretically hack an internet-connected drone to access the network of the agency that operates it, much in the same way that a vulnerable internet of things device can serve as a gateway to other computers on the same network. If a hacker were to find a standardized code that has exploits, they could potentially take over every one of those drones. As drones become more sophisticated, a hacker could even weaponize drones, creating a “Black Mirror”-like scenario.

AT&T and NASA aren’t the only ones trying to regulate the skies. In September, DARPA announced the Aerial Dragnet program, requesting proposals for technology that would allow the government to keep track of all objects flying below 1,000 feet. The agency initially envisioned their system relying on a network of tower- or drone-mounted “surveillance nodes” scattered throughout cities.

But AT&T’s initiative shows the company wants to have a foothold in the burgeoning drone industry. “Working with NASA and others, we are designing the management system for a new frontier in aviation,” Mike Leff, AT&T’s vice president of civilian agencies, said in a statement. “Drones are already used in agriculture, public safety, construction, utilities, real estate, and TV. This research can help support the commercial and private use of drones nationwide.”

The new system is just AT&T’s latest push into the drone market. In August, AT&T’s president of IoT Solutions, Chris Penrose, joined the Federal Aviation Administration’s Drone Advisory Committee. A month earlier, the company launched their national drone program, focused on using drones to inspect cell towers and boost LTE service in areas where a sudden influx of people is straining wireless coverage, like concerts, sports events, and protests.