Electronic Weapons: What The Phantom Really Knows

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August 29, 2017: In August 2017 the U.S. Army ordered its personnel to stop using commercial UAVs made by Chinese firm DJI. The reason for the ban was suspected problems with the security of the wireless communication hardware and software used by DJI commercial UAVs. DJI is the largest manufacturer of commercial quad-copters and the American military has been using them for some non-combat jobs as well as providing a lot of them to allies in Syria and Iraq. DJI quad-copters are also popular with Islamic terrorist groups and criminal organizations worldwide. The U.S. Army did not provide details of what the problems were (or might be) with the DJI UAVs but ordered its personnel to stop using them immediately and uninstall any DJI software installed in army PCs and disconnect any DJI wireless hardware.

It’s no secret that DJI quad-copters have been showing in in combat zones with increasing frequency since 2014. The most popular of these was the DJI Phantom quadcopter. The Phantom 3 showed up in 2015. It cost about a thousand dollars, weighs 3.9 kg (8.6 pounds) can stay in the air about 20 minutes per flight and can go up to 2,000 meters from the operator. The operator can see (at 720p resolution) what is under the Phantom using a small display and capture a higher resolution video (“2.7k” or 1080p) on a 16 GB micro memory card on the UAV. The Phantom 3 was widely available. It is easy to operate and has flight control software that makes it easy to operate and keeps the video image stable. You can equip these with a night vision camera. Max altitude is over 500 meters (1,600 feet) but most Phantoms operate lower down because getting to higher altitude takes time.

DJI kept upgrading its Phantom line of quadcopters from the moment the first one hit the market in 2013. The Phantom 1 was basically a quadcopter you could add your own GoPro wireless vidcam to. But every few months DJI added new features and major upgrades were introduced as a new mode. Phantom 2 appeared at the end of 2013, Phantom 3 in early 2015 and Phantom 4 a year later. Phantom 3 was the most popular model and Phantom 4 was basically a Phantom 3 with lots more capabilities (4K video, video transmission range of five kilometers) and a higher price (about $1,800 each). Now models of the Phantom continue to appear.

There are cheaper quadcopters and fixed wing UAVs and more expensive ($10,000 or more) ones. But for the needs of irregular forces in a chaotic combat zone relative cheap ones like Phantom get the job done. The sweet spot appears to be the thousand dollar Phantom 3 or similar models. It gets the job done, is easy to operate and you can afford to lose a few. DJI currently has over half the market for these quadcopters and apparently the U.S. Army has discovered vulnerabilities in the data security of the DJI software that could be exploited by the enemy (or already known and used by Chinese military intelligence). Since the Phantom UAVs have GPS and data logging anyone with access to DJI software could gather valuable information on how they are being used by all users, including the U.S. Army and allies it has supplied DJI UAVs to.

 


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