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How researchers are using a drone to discover connected devices in Austin

August 5, 2015, 8:37 PM UTC
Inside The UAS Mapping 2014 Reno Symposium
A DJI Spreading Wings S900 multirotor drone flies at the Turf Farm during the UAS Mapping 2014 Reno Symposium in Reno, Nevada, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. The first mapping calibration test course for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) will be established by American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) at the Reno Stead airport, an FAA-designated UAS test site, in conjunction with the UAS Mapping 2014 Reno symposium. Photographer: Chip Chipman/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Chip Chipman — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Given the explosion of connected devices, also known as the Internet-of-things, it’s natural that people would want to know just how many such devices are out there.

But how do you go about figuring out just how many of these devices—like thermometers or light bulbs hooked to the Internet—are being used in a given city? The answer is apparently to enlist the services of a drone that can fly above the city proper and gather tons of data pertaining to the connected gadgets and appliances.

A team of researchers at security company Praetorian wanted to discover how many IOT-friendly devices were being used in Austin, TX, and found that the best way to do so would be to outfit a drone with the company’s custom built connected-device tracking appliance and have it fly over the city, Praetorian vice president of marketing Paul Jauregui told Fortune.

As part of its Internet of Things Map Project, Praetorian released an interactive map showing the number of connected devices in Austin along with the names of device manufacturers and whether those gadgets were used in commercial, residential, or industrial zones.

It found that nearly 1,600 connected devices are being used in Austin, the majority in residential areas. From the map, you can see that that there are 453 connected Sony devices and 110 Philips Lighting connected products in Austin, making those companies the biggest suppliers of connected devices in the area.

Praetorian partnered with a local drone startup in Austin for the project, but Jauregui wouldn’t disclose the name because the company is currently in stealth mode.

The ultimate goal of the project is to see how IOT devices are being deployed in the open as well as what the device networks look like, explained Jauregui.

“It’s more about exploration at this point and understanding the landscape of this field,” said Jauregui. Eventually, the researchers plan to do a statistical analysis of the data and will try to determine security vulnerabilities based on the data.

While the rise of connected devices means that more data is now available to analyze by businesses that may be interested in improving their bottom line, it also means that there are a lot of security vulnerabilities that these devices are introducing to the public.

As security researcher Cesar Cerrudo explained during the 2015 RSA Conference, “It’s only matter of time until attacks on city services and infrastructure become common” as more connected devices are being used. Essentially, hackers could break into one connected device, like an air conditioner, and from there access other networks and appliances that the device may be sending data to.

“If there is a breach or incident, no one is pointing their fingers at the light bulb,” said Jauregui referring to how a bad actor could potentially cause a security breach by hacking into a connected light bulb that has poor security protocols in place.

Praetorian is only releasing a handful of the data to the public. Among some of the findings Praetorian will keep private for the time being was how some devices in residential zones communicate with other devices used by utility services.

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