features Protecting eVTOLs against cyber threats

Cybersecurity will be an important consideration for next-generation air taxis. How are eVTOL companies approaching this challenge?
Avatar for Gerrard Cowan By Gerrard Cowan | August 10, 2019

Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 16 seconds.

Cybersecurity is a key priority for eVTOL manufacturers, with the systems facing the same threats as all aerial platforms along with a range of unique challenges.

Pipistrel 801 eVTOL concept
Cybersecurity may be the single biggest challenge facing eVTOL developers, according to Pipistrel, creator of the 801 platform pictured here. Pipistrel Image

Indeed, cybersecurity may be one of the biggest technical challenges facing eVTOL developers, according to a spokesperson for Pipistrel, developer of the 801 platform. Aircraft propulsion systems, flight controls, and other systems are already available and relatively well-developed from a technological perspective, and “eVTOLs can start flying tomorrow in automatic flight mode,” the spokesperson said. However, cybersecurity remains a huge obstacle, the spokesperson continued, suggesting a disastrous scenario in which “because of an intrusion, eVTOLs start raining from the skies of London or New York in many hundreds.”

The threat is not limited to a particular part of the platform alone, ranging across navigation, communication, and other vital systems, the spokesperson added. “Each one of the many thousands of details, parts, and systems has the same importance. We cannot consider the air vehicle in parts, but as a whole.”

Cybersecurity has particular importance in urban air mobility (UAM), where operators will increasingly rely on electronic control systems on the ground and in the air, said Travis Mason, vice president of regulatory and certification at Airbus Urban Mobility. However, increasingly automated systems in UAM also present new opportunities to minimize cybersecurity threats, he said, because autonomous vehicles rely on fewer external resources and data.

“We address these opportunities on the vehicle and on the ground through a combination of careful system design, a well-considered concept of operation, and human oversight during operations,” he added. Airbus approaches cybersecurity in its UAM products throughout the supply chain and manufacturing cycles, working with internal experts and external specialists to adopt best practices from the transportation, telecommunications, banking, and military domains, Mason said.

There are a number of particular elements in the eVTOL domain that make it a unique cyber target, said Todd Probert, vice president of command and control (C2), space and intelligence at Raytheon. Many planned air taxis are set to be unmanned, he said, meaning there is a degree of autonomy and a corresponding coordination with ground infrastructure in terms of air traffic management. However, air traffic management takes on a new meaning in this domain, as the vast majority of the systems are meant to fly in the relatively small, confined spaces of cities. This in turn means they demand sense and avoid systems to ensure air taxis avoid colliding with buildings or with other vehicles, he said. Such systems will need “some sort of cyber overlay,” Probert emphasized.

Airbus Vahana in flight
Airbus approaches cybersecurity in its UAM products throughout the supply chain and manufacturing cycles, working with internal experts and external specialists to adopt best practices from multiple domains. Above, the company’s Vahana. Airbus Photo

Raytheon is not focused directly on the eVTOL space at present, but it does develop similar technologies for other areas, notably unmanned vehicles, which could be adapted to eVTOLs in future. Probert pointed to the company’s Skyler radar as an example, with the system built purposely for use in urban environments.

“All the navigation aids and the communication coming into these vehicles need to be protected as much as the vehicles themselves,” he said.

Emerging eVTOLs are a kind of hybrid between traditional manned aviation platforms and drones, creating unique cyber challenges, said Roi Mit, chief marketing officer at Regulus Cyber, which produces cybersecurity solutions for radar, lidar, global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) like GPS, and other types of sensors. Like many types of drones, many eVTOL aircraft are being designed to fly autonomously, with no on-board pilot controlling them and even remote control sometimes a challenge due to the distances they need to cover. However, they will be in general much larger than drones, and must be “a lot more reliable, because they actually carry passengers and are large air vehicles themselves.”

Mit said his company has already discussed the potential uses of its Pyramid protection devices to cyber-harden eVTOL sensors with a number of companies in the space. This has so far focused on protecting and augmenting the reliability of satellite navigation for eVTOL platforms using the Pyramid GNSS solution, he added. While he could not provide more detail of its work on eVTOLs specifically, he said the company has conducted industry-wide testing on various autonomous technologies, most recently in the Tesla Model 3, to demonstrate the vulnerability and danger of GNSS spoofing and how to protect against it. 

Regulus Cyber believes aviation authorities will have to take a unique approach to setting security standards for eVTOLs as the market continues to evolve around the world, he added. For example, while fixed-wing commercial aircraft have a range of back-up systems in place in case their GPS systems are attacked, this may not be the case with eVTOLs, where sensors may be the only means of navigation and it may not be possible for a human to intervene, even remotely. 

“It’s a whole different ballgame when it comes to cybersecurity and the redundancy required,” he said.

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