An investigation into the computer security of small airplanes, the results of which were made public this week, will be sure to generate some flashy headlines. However, there are important caveats.
The probe in question, carried out by Patrick Kiley, a senior security consultant at Rapid7, shows just how easy it is to hack a small plane. Kiley, an amateur pilot, cracked open the avionics – that’s the aircraft’s control and navigation systems – from two aircraft manufacturers who specialize in light aircraft, and studied their Controller Area Network (CAN) bus. This electrical bus is used to shuttle data between the onboard computer systems of the aircraft.
Kiley found that, in many cases, small planes use the CAN bus much in the same way that modern cars do. The control systems use the single bus to relay commands to various hardware components and receive readings from sensors.
“Small aircraft typically maintain the direct mechanical linkage between the flight controls and the flight surface. However, electronic controls for flaps, trim, engine controls, and autopilot systems are becoming more common,” Kiley noted in his dossier.