UAV video remains free to download

U.S. military engineers have yet to finish encrypting even half the video feeds broadcast off the unmanned drones that ground commanders depend on to collect intelligence, according to a Danger Room report.

Military leaders found out in 2008 that Iraqi insurgents could download the feeds broadcast from Air Force MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers allowing the militants to watch the same video seen inside U.S. battlefield headquarters. Officials said in December 2009 that the Defense Department would start work to finish encrypting all signals by 2014.

However, Danger Room is reporting that the military is only “30 to 50 percent” of the way done with the job three year later.

The U.S. had known about this vulnerability since it first built the Predator. U.S. Air Force leaders explained that it was a risk they had to take to rush as many unmanned aerial vehicles as possible to desperate ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first known intercept of Predator video occurred in the Balkans when private television satellites picked up UAV feeds. People in Bosnia said it was harder to watch the Disney Channel than pick up live U.S. military feeds.

In 2008, U.S. troops found laptops in Iraq outfitted with a $26 Russian-made software program called SkyGrabber that allowed militants to pick up U.S. UAV feeds quite easily. Even with the evidence of those laptops, U.S. officials claimed that watching the feeds would not help the enemy because they would not know what they were looking at.

Other defense analysts made the point that high value targets could easily know they were being watching if they used that software program and thus tipping them off to moving positions. Ground commanders have often pointed out the benefits to keeping a Predator or Reaper collecting video over a target for multiple days to understand their patterns of life.

As Danger Room points out, the major obstacle to encrypting the feeds is adding the additional weight of the encryption boxes to aircraft sensitive to additional poundage. That is what kept the encryption boxes off the aircraft in the first place. Adding them often means taking other packages off the aircraft.

The Pentagon still has two years left to meet their 2014 goal of encrypting UAV feeds. Meeting that goal would fall in line with the expectations under the new defense strategy that U.S. military leaders can’t expect to operate in future environments where they will control the air so easily.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to He can be reached at
  • Jerry

    I’d imagine that the “30 to 50 percent” of encrypted drones are the ones deployed in Afghanistan (?).

    • K.C McManaman

      i’d hope for our sake.

  • NAte

    I’m 3rd year student in electrical engineering, I’m extremely surprised by Danger Room claim’s.

    Military grade encryption system can be packed in extremely low chips, with footprints under a centimeter square and under 5 gram (with cost that are stupidly low compared to the cost of an UAV).

    Such system have been around for the last decade. Streaming video “on the clear” is the stupidest thing I ever heard : Your UAV has to land at some point ! Everyone can just watch USA bases from air, that’s a strategical tool that might even be better for insurgents than what those drones ever gave the US forces.

    • blight_

      I bet they’re going to blame COTS and “evolving standards” as their excuses for not going with encryption…

      • Sailor12

        When people order COTS they give the company a specification to alter the COTS to fit their program so the military gets what it paid for. The morroons.

    • Steven

      My bet is retarded gov contracting rules forbid the military from using what you describe and instead forces them into putting out 10 bids. 5 of which they have to accept (good or bad), So the work gets divided amongst 5 different contractors all of which will build their own crypto package the Air Force. They will then have to package all of them as one and pay a 6th contractor to link them together. Thus your crypto gear is now 30 pounds in stead of 30 grams.

      • blight_

        It’s bigger, stronger security for America.

      • Nate

        That’s absolutely plausible.

        It’s just lame that they are building “High Tech” defense system that are flawed BY DESIGN.

        But it just feel like those contractor tried to sell flawed designs so they could get more contract by replacing them in a very shot delay…..

  • BlackOwl18E

    It’s clear that we underestimated our enemies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We went in there with the notion already in our minds that they were nothing but cavemen with guns. Boy, was that assumption wrong or what?

    Also, everything electronic has a back door. I see the point of using UAVs for war. However, I am against relying on UAVs to a point where we couldn’t take care of the fighting portion of war without them. Manned warplanes are better and more reliable for use as strike platforms. Human pilots have the ability to be creative and improvise for unseen circumstances, which is something computers don’t do well.

    It’s true that we have integrated other forms of technology that are automated ways of killing a target (cruise missiles and others), but that doesn’t mean the threat of hacking is going to disappear. Enemy hackers have instead tried to adapt and have gotten better and better. There is no garantee that we will always keep our cyber edge nore that there will be a cyber attack that can cause some extremely penetrating damage or take control of our UCAVs and turn them against us. Of all the projected futures of different types of warfare, hacking is the most dangerous and most unclear. It is for this reason that we shouldn’t replace our manned machines with UCAVs. Would anyone think I’m crazy for saying that there are definitely times when we should rely on a pilot putting his life at risk instead of relying on a machine?

  • Malakie

    The excuse for not using encryption is bull. Not only can a few small chips that weigh next to nothing do the job, I could easily write an encryption tool that would do it as well. For something like this you do not need something that is super strong or elaborate. The only time you need to really worry about running the stream is when video is active during a flight mission. By the time the enemy MAYBE decrypts the signal, the mission would most probably be over so who cares. Using a key system that changes each mission would easily foil them again each flight..

    • tmb2

      If you’re using a SINCGARS-like radio encryption then you’re talking about a chip weighing ounces. Since we’re talking about encrypting streaming data over a UHF signal you’re probably looking at a TACLANE-like device which is the size of a small shoebox weighing 5-10 pounds.

  • haloguy628

    I bet the drones flying in Afghanistan are the ones without encryption as compared to the drones flying on Mexican borders which are most likely encrypted. Got to keep our priority straight.

  • Heavyked

    Iran guided the CIA’s “lost” RQ-170 to an intact landing inside hostile territory by exploiting a navigational weakness long-known to the US military, according to an Iranian engineer now working on the captured drone’s systems inside Iran.
    Iranian electronic warfare specialists were able to cut off communications links of the American bat-wing RQ-170 Sentinel, says the engineer, who works for one of many Iranian military and civilian teams currently trying to unravel the drone’s stealth and intelligence secrets, and who could not be named for his safety.
    Using knowledge gleaned from previous downed American drones and a technique proudly claimed by Iranian commanders in September, the Iranian specialists then reconfigured the drone’s GPS coordinates to make it land in Iran at what the drone thought was its actual home base in Afghanistan.
    “The GPS navigation is the weakest point,” the Iranian engineer told the Monitor, giving the most detailed description yet published of Iran’s “electronic ambush” of the highly classified US drone. “By putting noise [jamming] on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain.”

    • blight_

      I remain skeptical that the INS would have failed on a UAV to that degree.

      Unless the RQ-170 didn’t have an INS, which would be surprising.

  • Menzie

    So adding a 1lb scrambling unit that cable companies use is out of the question because the defense lobby wants to sell the 50lb $10million dollar version. Yeah that makes sense. I’ll make sure my congressman knows I want the heavier, pricier one.

  • dubweiser101

    This article lays credence to a more relevant issue – Iran.

    If Iraq was able to view the video feeds from UAV’s back in ’09, then wouldn’t it be prudent to assume that Iran could do the same today.

    Since Iran is largely seen as the USA’s next opponent, it would seem that the US is not at the top of its game as previously thought given Iran’s significant superiority over Iraq in tech and military.

    Info and logistics is the key to victory on the battlefield, and if that’s compromised than who’s to say what will happen. The US needs to pay more attention how its systems can be compromised.

  • So?

    I have a friend who worked who for an Israeli UAV company (who shall remain nameless). And yes, the video feed was unencrypted analog. As much as people like to believe otherwise, miltech is not automatically high tech.

    • shawn1999

      Ah, that’s why they forced everyone to go digital and took back the analog waves- this way the folks in the US without cable/satellite couldn’t see they are being watch!

  • Jayson

    Reminds me of the scene in Spaceballs and the whole ship manned by morons. Just this is seriously risking lives of the military men and women with little regard. Those big heads have got to get the heads out of their ass’s and get it right.

  • Guest

    Besides the on A/C equipment, you’d have to have ground and possibly even satellite equipment added to make things work properly. That, given the way the military “normally” does business, might take four or more years, with two years of the time eaten up by contracting practice and laws. Not to mention “color of money” problems that always occur.

  • RCDC

    How about making it robotic, unmanned, uncontrolled, untappable, self thinking robot drone? That can land, fly and do it’s mission on it’s own and comeback.

  • arman