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Substation Drone Attack

For many years we have been talking about different cybersecurity threats to the electric power grid that can lead to the tripping of transmission lines or substation equipment following a cyber-attack. The substation itself is being considered protected environment because of the proper fencing of the installation. However, a fence can provide protection only from a ground-based attack, but it is useless if the attack is coming from the air.

For a few years we have been raising issues about physical security, especially related to the threats coming from drones. Their availability and low cost, together with the lack of some specific regulations make it possible for attackers to cause a temporary outage by creating a short circuit fault or permanently damaging equipment using an explosive payload.

Such theoretical threats are now becoming a reality according to a federal law enforcement bulletin obtained by CNN and later reported by other media sources. An October 28 bulletin from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center attributed a drone that crashed in July 2020 on the roof of a building next to a Pennsylvania substation as likely specifically targeting the energy infrastructure. The attacker had modified a popular and relatively inexpensive DJI Mavic 2 drone by first removing serial numbers, the camera and memory card and anything else that could be used to trace the ownership. Then nylon cords had been attached to it, with a thick copper wire connected to the cords and long enough to cause a short circuit when the drone flies over some of the substation equipment.

The drone crashed on the roof of an adjacent building before it reached the substation, damaging a rotor in the process. Its operator still hasn’t been found. According to the bulletin, the incident is the first known instance of a modified, unmanned aircraft system being used to “specifically target” US energy infrastructure.

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