Researchers Take Down Quadcopter by Hacking 3D-Printed Propellers

Researchers from three universities have demonstrated what they say was the first complete sabotage attack on a 3D additive manufacturing (AM) system – specifically, a 3D-printed drone propeller.

According to the researchers, the test illustrated how a cyber attack and malicious manipulation of blueprints can fatally damage production of a device or machine.

In their paper, titled “Dr0wned,” researchers from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), the University of South Alabama, and Singapore University of Technology and Design detail how to sabotage the quality of a 3D-printed functional part and lead to the destruction of a device.

A proof-of-concept video shows how the researchers destroyed a $1,000 quadcopter by hacking into the computer used to control the 3D printing of replacement propellers. Once they penetrated the computer, the researchers identified the propeller blueprint file and inserted defects undetectable by visual inspection. During flight tests, the sabotaged propeller broke apart during ascent, causing the drone to smash into the ground, the researchers explain.

More than 100 industries, including aerospace, automotive and defense, employ additive printing processes, according to Manhattan, N.Y.-based American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU).

“Imagine that an adversary can sabotage functional parts employed in an airplane’s jet engines. Such an attack could cost lives, cause economic loss, disrupt industry and threaten a country’s national security,” comments Yuval Elovici, a professor at BGU.

“With the growth of additive manufacturing worldwide, we believe the ability to conduct malicious sabotage of these systems will attract the attention of many adversaries, ranging from criminal gangs to state actors, who will aim either for profit or for geopolitical power,” he continues.

“‘Dr0wned’ is not the first article that raises this issue,” the researchers note. “However, all prior research has focused on a single aspect of a possible attack, assuming that all other attack elements are feasible. This is the first experimental proof of a complete attack chain initiated by sabotaging the 3D-printed propeller.”

AAGBU says the collaborative study addresses the dangerous consequences of cyber attacks and proposes a systematic approach for identifying opportunities and a methodology for assessing the level of difficulty of an attack involving AM.

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