Reversing the Parrot SkyController Firmware


The Parrot SkyController is a remote control sold for long range flights with the Parrot Bebop drone, sometimes used in the real estate sector. It enables integration of smartphones and tablets for flight control via Wifi connection, allowing transmission of real-time data from the drone. In other words, the SkyController acts as an intermediate between the flight management software (smartphone/tablet) and the actual drone. In this post, we explain how to reverse the firmware of the SkyController to be able o view the contents of the internal operating system and understand its inner workings. A lot of the information provided is based on [1] and is applied on this specific firmware. Code is provided along this post that will extract files and information from the SkyController firmware.

The Parrot SkyController Device
The Parrot SkyController Device (taken from the Parrot Store)


The firmware of the Parrot Skycontroller appears to be a well-defined format which is reused across multiple products from the company. The firmware contains 2 types of structures the header and a sequence of “data entries”. The header is located at the beginning of the file and is followed by multiple entries which contains configuration and file system information. We will look at both structures in the following sections.


The firmware header starts with four magic bytes which spells out “PLF!”. These can therefore be used to identify valid Parrot firmware files. A quick Python snippet is included below as an example.

Immediately after the magic bytes, a sequence of thirteen 32-bit unsigned integers provides additional information about the firmware. Defined as a C structure, the header would look something like this:

The header version specify the type of format used for the firmware header. Within the SkyController firmware, the value for this field was “0x0D”, possibly indicating that there are 14 variations of header formats. The header size provides the number of bytes included in the header while the entry header size specifies the number of bytes in headers of entries within the firmware. The next 5 integers are undefined at the moment, as is the before-last integer. One of them is likely a CRC32 checksum. The dwVersionMajor, dwVersionMinor and dwVersionRevision defines the version of the firmware. Lastly, the header contains the size of the file in bytes.


Each entry has a header of constant size, which is specified within the firmware header by the dwEntrySize value. In the SkyController, each entry is composed of 20 bytes used as follows:


The section type specify the type of data contained within the entry. This can be configuration data, partition details or file information. These will be explained in further details in the sections below. The entry size contains the number of bytes within the entry, without consideration for null-byte padding. This field is followed by a CRC32 value. It’s unclear at this point how this value is calculated. The last known integer is the size of the data once uncompressed. If this value is 0, then the contents are not compressed. Each type of entry have further fields defined, and these are explained below.

Firmware Entries

There are multiple types of entries within the firmware. In this section we will describes the one we came across in the file we have analyzed.

Bootloader and Boot Configuration (0x03, 0x07)

Entry 0x03 contains a binary file which appears to be the bootloader of the system based on strings contained within, however more analysis will be required to understand how it actually works. In the SkyController, a PLF file was observed, but within that PLF file, this entry had binary data. Similarly, entry 0x07 also appears to be related to the boot process as shown by the string “ecos-bootloader-p7-start-246-ge30badf”, “ecos” referring to the eCos operating system.

File System Data (0x09)

There is a  “File System Data” entry for each file contained in the firmware. As such, this entry is the most common one. Depending on whether the file is compressed or not, the structure of this entry is slightly different: when its contents are uncompressed, this entry starts with the filename (or directory name), which is a zero-terminated string. The name is then followed by 3 unsigned integers.

The first integer contains flags specifying the type of file, which can be a directory, a normal file or a symbolic link. This is specified by reading the bits 12 to 15. The 12 other bits contains the permissions of the file. Converted into octal form, the last 12 bits will provide the same format as the one used in Linux. For example:

Extracting File Permissions from the Firmware Entry
Extracting File Permissions from the Firmware Entry

When compressed, the flags are within the Gzip-compressed data. The data must therefore be first uncompressed and then, the same procedure applies: the filename will be a null-terminated string right at the beginning, followed 3 unsigned integers, the first containing the type and permissions. The remaining bytes are the content of the file. In the example below, the filename is system/pulsar/etc/boxinit.hosted. The flags are 0x000081A0 (little-endian) and the contents of the file starts at 0x32. 

Partition Data (0x0B)

The 0x0B entry contains information about partitions on the device.The header of this entry is composed of 10 values. The first 4 integers are version information, the next 5 ones are unknown and the last unsigned integer is the number of partitions defined within the entry.

For each partition defined within the entry, a sub entry is available which contains further information about the partition: the device ID, volume data and the mount point on the target device. The defining structure for this entry are:

Volume type can be either RAW, STATIC and DYNAMIC. A raw partition contains no file systems, for example swap partitions. Static partitions are read-only, such as the boot partition and finally, the dynamic partitions are read-write and contains modifiable files.

Installation Data (0x0C)

This entry was included early in the file and contained another PLF file within its data. This PLF file contained a 0x00 entry, which is unknown, a 0x03 entry and a 0x07 entry. The 0x07 entry contained boot options:


I have upload a Python program [2] which will extract information and files from the SkyController firmware here. It also successfully extracted files for a Bebop2 firmware and I suspect it will work for other recent firmware. With additional work, it may reverse older ones. Repacking an unpacked firmware should be doable, but I do not have any of the device to test it out. Before doing so, determining how the CRC value for the header and each entry is calculate is required. Future work would include testing additional firmware files and implementing the program to repack an unpacked and modified firmware. Finally, reading the eCos documentation may clarify many of the unidentified values.


[1] “PLF File Format”, E/S and I, (accessed 2016-12-13)

[2] Racicot, J. “Vulture”, (accessed 2017-01-03)

Drone Insecurities

Airborne cyber attacks against drones have been conducted by hackers, criminals and state-sponsored actors. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – also known as “drones” – are gaining popularity in many sectors of society. Pioneered by the military, law enforcement as well as criminals have used them. Hobbyists gather to race while retail stores will soon ship purchases with these. To reach the market quickly, security is often an afterthought. Vendors and operators underestimate the intent and capability of hackers to target their products. Thus researchers took up the challenge of showing their vulnerabilities. Reviewing current security issues and past incidents highlight the issues and their solutions before critical failures in drones causes harm. However before doing so, let’s quickly study the basic inner workings of drones.

Drones: How do they work?

Drones range from the highly complex multi-million dollars military aircraft to the toy models available for a hundred dollars. Despite this disparity, their overall architecture can be divided into 1) the aircraft and 2) the ground station. The aircraft regroups sensors and controllers needed to fly while the ground station includes software and hardware to send commands wirelessly. The ground station includes wireless transceivers, flight planning software, aircraft maintenance applications and the operators. The aircraft hosts the flight controller which processes data from sensors, avionics, communications, autopilot systems and in some cases, weapons.

Drone System Diagram
Drone Command and Control Diagram

Operators send navigation commands via a Remote Controller (RC), which relay information via a Line-of-Sight (LOS) communication channel. In low-end drones, standard wireless networking protocols are used while higher-end ones leverage satellite communications. Data from the ground station is transmitted to receivers or the aircraft and processed by the flight controller. The controller manages the outputs from various sensors including the GPS receiver, camera and propellers. Audiovisual data is relayed to the ground station via a second communication channel or stored on removable medias. Predefined routes can be programmed using flight planning software to make the aircraft autonomous.

Cyberattacks against Drones

Communication channels are the obvious attack vector. Unfortunately calls for encryption are often downplayed and proprietary protocols, despite some may believe, are not safe from reverse engineering and hijacking. In 2009, Iraqi militants found out that unencrypted videos feed from U.S. drones were available by pointing a satellite receiver towards the drone, greatly compromising operational effectiveness. While secure channels are critical, weak encryption is as good as no encryption. It was discovered in 2015 that scrambled video feeds between Israeli UAVs and ground stations were easily decrypted using open-source software. An attacker only required knowledge of the proper frequencies. That being said, even good encryption is no  remedy when employed with vulnerable key management systems. A fact rarely discussed by security vendors pitching solutions.

Lower end drones have been hacked via known vulnerabilities in wireless networking protocols. SkyJack is an air-to-air network attack drone that detects surrounding wireless connections of vulnerable drones and reroutes them to itself, allowing the remote operator to to hijack the target. This deauthentification technique used is similar to the one seen against home wireless networks. Other attacks included cracking WEP networks between the flight planning software and the remote controller, allowing the intruder to issue commands to the remote controller.

Communicational channels are not the only weak points. Drones require information from their environment in order to navigate. The information is captured by the sensors and transmitted to the flight controller for processing. Therefore providing invalid inputs to the sensors will disrupt the aircraft. Invalid GPS data is one of the explanation for the unexpected landing of a U.S. RQ-170 sentinel in Iran. The Iranian military maintain they spoofed GPS data by broadcasting stronger signals than the ones from valid GPS satellites. By doing so they forced the sentinel to land. Such an attack was proven possible on other models. The second theory is that an internal malfunction forced an emergency landing. In either case, this incident highlighted two issues: implicit trust of sensory data sources and unexpected effects of internal errors.

Security is not only about networks; it’s also about robustness of the internal software. MalDrone is a malware compiled for ARM Linux which allows to spawn a remote shell on the target drone. The attacker intercepts an unencrypted channel between the ground station and a vulnerable aircraft to upload the malware, allowing direct access to the operating system (OS). An alternative tactic could aim to modify the firmware of the flight controller or sensors. Users rarely validate the integrity of the firmware downloaded online, allowing backdoors to be injected via man-in-the-middle attacks. Hackers may leverage social engineering to send malicious updates or exploit a vulnerability to execute arbitrary code and gain remote access to the drone. Like many Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices, drones are seldom updated by their owners and could remain vulnerable for a long period of time.


As drones continue to find increased usage in civil society, they will be subjected to further analysis. Engineers and operators should never underestimate both the capability and intent of malicious actors to target their product either for fun, profit or other malicious goals. Lessons learned by the software industry remain mostly unimplemented:; lack of secure communications, no firmware integrity validation, loose or absent security controls and slow patching of critical vulnerabilities. The success of the Mirai botnet is a result of these failings and drones are not exempt. Unlike the distributed denial of service observed, compromised drones may raise safety concerns and must therefore be secured.