Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have demonstrated how the GPS signals of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, can be hijacked by an outside source.
The discovery could have significant implications due to a federal law that forces the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow thousands of civilian drones into U.S. airspace by 2015. Using a small UAV owned by the university and some hardware and software developed by Cockrell School of Engineering Assistant Professor Todd Humphreys and his students were able to repeatedly overtake navigational signals going to the GPS-guided drone.
As part of their experiment, the researchers spoofed civil GPS signals in order to trick the device’s GPS receiver into thinking everything is fine as a new navigational course is inputted by a hacker.
“We’re raising the flag early on in this process so there is ample opportunity to improve the security of civilian drones from these attacks, as the government is committed to doing,” Humphreys said in a statement.
Humphreys and his students were invited by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to demonstrate the capability in White Sands, New Mexico in late June. During the spoofing demonstration at White Sands, the research team took control of a hovering UAV from about a kilometer away. Next year, they plan to perform a similar demonstration on a moving UAV from 10 kilometers away, according to a press release from the university.
Last year, an Iranian engineer told the media his country had captured a U.S. drone by taking control of its GPS systems using a spoofed signal. The U.S. Air Force denied the claim and stated it knew what caused the RQ-170 drone to crash, but declined to release any details of the cause.
In an interview with Fox News, Humphreys said the security implications of the issue are serious.
“In 5 or 10 years you have 30,000 drones in the airspace,” he said. “Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us.”