Cyber defenders compete in drone hacking contest

Cyber defenders compete in drone hacking contest
Team Odin won first place in the first drone hacking competition on December 1. Photo provided by the Korea Drone Security Association. 

By Kuksung Nam, The Readable
Dec. 1, 2023 10:48PM GMT+9 Updated Dec. 4, 2023 11:15AM GMT+9

As the clock turned its first digit number from one to two, eighteen cyber defenders locked their eyes on their laptop screens to face the six hurdles they must solve to become the winner of the world’s first drone hacking competition.

On December 1, the International Drone Hacking Competition, titled “Hack the DRONE Festival,” held its inaugural event on KyungHee University’s global campus situated in the South Korean city of Yongin. Five groups succeeded in securing their place in the finals after competing against 53 teams from three different countries in the tryouts: South Korea, the United States, and Egypt. The tryouts were conducted online from November 1 to November 17.

The finalists, each named Defenit, Odin, PwnersLab, SaturnX, and SSL, tackled six different challenges within the time limit of four hours. In one of the tasks, named the ‘Rubik’s drone,” the contestants have to manually target the drone in the right direction at the right angle. The information was given only after they succeeded in breaking into QGroundControl, a simulation application widely used to fly drones virtually.

You Jae-wook, a member of the Defenit team and a senior at the specialized team of white hackers at the Financial Security Institute, named the RED IRIS, is tilting the drone to solve the hacking task at the drone hacking competition held on December 1. Photo by Kuksung Nam, The Readable
Yeon Dong-hyeon, a fourth-year student at the School of Computing at KyungHee University, who is also a staff member at the Hacked the DRONE Festival, is confirming whether the contestants have successfully manipulated the drone’s motors to move. Photo by Kuksung Nam, The Readable

In another task, which was named “Ready to Flight,” the participants had to manipulate the drone in flight by hijacking its signal. For safety reasons, the organizers separated the four propellers from the drones and decided the success of the participants by looking at the movement of the motors that were associated with the propellers.

“Just like a maze, there is a lot of ways the contestants could solve the problems. They could take the path that we have intended or unravel the problems by using different methods. However, we have hidden the treasure in one place. They need to solve the maze faster than any other competitors to win,” explained Lee Jae-bin, the associate researcher of the South Korean cybersecurity firm Teruten, who took part in designing the questions.

After hours of battling with meticulous tasks, team Odin was the first to solve all the challenges. It took them approximately two hours and forty minutes to obtain the highest score among the teams, which was 1050. Odin also managed to solve four challenges faster than anyone else, which earned them additional “First Blood” points of 1 for each question. Team Odin is comprised of four participants, all of whom are working as researchers at the South Korean cybersecurity firm ENKI.

The members of team Odin, Cha Hyun-soo, from the right, Lee Ju-chang, Kim Seung-hwan, and Chae Han-uel, are solving the challenges at the first drone hacking competition on December 1. Photo by Kuksung Nam, The Readable

“All of the teammates have been learning hacking skills since high school. As we were familiar with solving hacking problems, we think we were able to solve today’s challenges more quickly while studying them in  the process,” said Cha Hyun-soo, the team leader of Odin, who wore the team arm badge, which was neon yellow.

Richard Yu, the president of the Korea Drone Security Association, which hosted the Hack the DRONE Festival, stressed the importance of the security of unmanned aerial vehicles, stating that the current research is more focused on elevating the function of the drones, such as how far the machine could go or how much more weight the drones could carry, than on their security or their vulnerabilities.

“This is the first competition in the world specifically focused on drone hacking,” said Yu, who is also the CEO of Teruten, to The Readable. “By continuing the competition onwards, we will try to establish the understanding in the international community that South Korea is one of the leaders in drone security.”

nam@thereadable.co

This article was copyedited by Arthur Gregory Willers.

The cover photo of this article was replaced with a photo provided by the Korea Drone Security Association.


Kuksung Nam is a journalist for The Readable. She has extensively traversed the globe to cover the latest stories on the cyber threat landscape and has been producing in-depth stories on security and privacy by engaging with industry giants, foreign government officials and experts. Before joining The Readable, Kuksung reported on politics for one of South Korea’s top-five local newspapers, The Kyeongin Ilbo. Her journalistic skills and reportage earned her the coveted Journalists Association of Korea award in 2021 for her essay detailing exclusive stories about the misconduct of a former government official. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in French from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, a testament to her linguistic capabilities.