The basic premise and popularity of drones
Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs for short) that can be used for all sorts of purposes, recreational and corporate alike.
Since their inception, drones have come a long way, and even the very basic models are capable of taking pictures and recording videos. The consumer-grade models are priced as low as a couple of hundred dollars, thus making them accessible almost to anyone. There are also tiny models suitable for kids – these small toys often go for even less than that.
Drones have now become consumer-grade devices. According to Statista, there are in excess of 800.000 registered units for recreational flying in the US alone, along with 300.000+ registered for commercial purposes. (Source: Statista)
To control them, the operator can issue commands via a radio controller, which is a practical handheld device with a wide range of coverage. Most modern and more expensive models also come with a smartphone app for issuing advanced commands and tweaking their settings to the user’s liking.
Unfortunately, these handy aerial devices can also be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes like voyeurism, smuggling, physical attacks, and other illegal activities we’ve covered below. This is where drone forensics comes in. In essence, this is a sub-category of mobile and wireless forensics. After all, in its purest form, you can think of a drone as a smart device with sensors attached to it.
Since these devices are so easily affordable, controllable, and accessible, the number of drone-related criminal activities is on an upward trend. Therefore, drone forensics is gaining an increasing role when it comes to solving urban and corporate crime.
Challenges faced in drone forensics
Unfortunately, a drone forensics investigation doesn’t always go as planned and there are several challenges and roadblocks a forensic digital examiner can face down the road.
Damage to the storage media and scattered components
If the drone has been damaged during flight or landing, pieces of it may be scattered across the terrain. Not only do they have to be found, collected, and assembled, the damage sustained during the fall can shake up the storage media, thus making it harder to recover data from it.
A lack of GPS data
If the GPS signal was turned off during the flight or if there were some sort of connectivity issues, the EXIF data will not contain any geographic coordinates. This can make it harder to pinpoint its exact whereabouts during flight.
Among other things, drones also store GPS data of their whereabouts, as well as their entire flight history.
As already stated, the drone likely contains some form of unique serial number or ID that can be traced back to the original owner. However, due to legal intricacies, this can be a tricky process with several delays that can get in the way of the investigation.
A lack of proper digital forensics tools
Since drone forensics is a very specific and often challenging field, you need a comprehensive all-in-one solution like Digital Forensic Lab by SalvationDATA. This will help you bypass any technical roadblocks you might bump into during the investigation such as encryption or software incompatibility, all while knowing that the integrity of the digital evidence will remain untouched.
When your job is done, you will be able to generate a complete digital forensics report at the click of a button without spending long hours typing it.
Connecting to the drone’s USB
On some occasions, you’ll run into trouble when trying to connect to the drone’s USB port. This will make forensic imaging next to impossible. In case you encounter this during the drone forensics process, the only solution is to conduct a wireless imaging sequence.
File system incompatibilities
Did you know that a single drone can have upwards of five different file systems? This can result in incompatibilities when trying to access data that’s stored inside. In some cases, you’ll have no other option but to attack the problem from multiple different angles by using different digital forensics tools.
If, however, time is a valuable asset to you, be sure to check out VIP 2.0 which not only allows you to access a myriad of file systems without issues but also has no problem playing and repairing the video footage extracted no matter what codec it would otherwise require to play.
Since drones are a relatively new technology, there is hardly any standardization in place when it comes to software, hardware, and firmware used in their production. The same applies to flight controllers.
This means that different manufacturers are free to take a different approach in how they choose to design their products.
To access flight data, a drone forensics analyst often needs permission from the drone’s owner. In case the latter is guilty of a crime, expecting any kind of collaboration from them would be futile. Since the flight data can be encrypted, this adds another layer of complexity to the forensic investigation.
On top of that, access to flight data, the device contains can vanish if the battery runs out.
The owner of the drone could deliberately try to obstruct the investigation by trying to tamper with the drone’s recorded data from a remote location.
This includes trying to wipe the data, altering it, or performing a factory reset.
In some cases, the data might not be stored locally on the confiscated aircraft device, but be uploaded to a cloud or a private server instead.
In cases like these, gaining access to it and presents a massive challenge, because it’s much easier to break or bypass passwords and encryption if the drone forensics examiner has physical access to the device.