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Zombie drone hack reminds us why flying robots are terrifying

There’s been a lot of talk about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) this week, what with both Amazon and UPS teasing us with potential plans to launch drone delivery services in the next couple of years. It’s almost enough to make a man feel that having the sky filled with swarms of flying robots will be normal – or at least not crazy. And then comes this.

Well-known hacker Samy Kamkar revealed this week a DIY system that allows anyone to use their drone to completely take over other drones it finds, and turn them into a hoard of “zombie drones,” reports Ars Technica. Zombie drones don’t just whiz around looking for brains like you might expect, though. Instead, all overtaken drones are at the command of the person who launched the attack. So they’re more like the Borg from Star Trek or an army of ants. If you want to take them out, you need to find the queen.

“Today Amazon announced they’re planning to use unmanned drones to deliver some packages to customers within five years. Cool!” wrote Kamkar in a blog post published Monday. “How fun would it be to take over drones, carrying Amazon packages … or take over any other drones, and make them my little zombie drones. Awesome.”

Kamkar calls his system SkyJack, and it consists of both software and hardware. On the software end, we have a number of obscure apps that anyone this side of computer nerdom has probably never heard of (aircrack-ng, node-ar-drone, node.js), as well as Kamkar’s custom-built SkyJack software. As for hardware, Kamkar uses the Parrot AR.Drone 2 outfitted with a Raspberry Pi mini-computer, USB battery, and two types of wireless adapters.

All combined, the SkyJack system is able to hunt down other drones that are nearby, attack them via Wi-Fi signal, take them over, and put them in control of whoever launched the attack via laptop of iPad. The system can launch attacks from both the ground and the air.

Now, this hack really isn’t a big deal at the moment – there just aren’t that many drones flying around these days. But that will soon change, when the Federal Aviation Administration begins allowing UAVs into U.S. airspace in far greater numbers starting in 2015. The FAA estimates that we could see as many as 15,000 drones in the sky by 2020 – just six years from now. Here’s hoping the agency sorts out SkyJack-level vulnerabilities before the zombie apocalypse attacks from above.

Watch SkyJack in action below:

[Image via Tyler Olson/Shutterstock]