Texas college researchers hack US government surveillance drone

Posted Jun 28, 2012 by JohnThomas Didymus
Researchers at Austin's Radionavigation Lab. demonstrated the risk in the plan to open up US airspace to drone flights by using a "spoofer" to hack a drone and causing it to make a crash landing dive, showing how a drone could be turned into a weapon.
Predator a medium-altitude  long-endurance  unmanned aircraft system like those used in Afghanistan ...
Predator a medium-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft system like those used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
U.S. Air Force
According to MSN Now, the US Department of Homeland Security "dared" the researchers at the Austin Radionavigation Laboratory of the University of Texas to take control of one of their drones. The researchers repeatedly hacked the navigation system of a US government drone with a device worth a paltry $1,000, much to the discomfiture of Homeland Security officials who might have thought that their drones were "hack proof."
Professor Todd Humphreys and his team at the University of Texas Radionavigation Laboratory, successfully diverted a small US surveillance drone flying over Austin stadium, dutifully following a series of GPS waypoints programmed into its flight computer. The drone suddenly careened from its programmed path and made a kamikaze dive, but just a few feet from the ground, the team aborted the self-destruct course using a radio control device.
Humphreys explained to Fox News that anyone armed with the right equipment could take control of a GPS-guided drone using a new method for hacking GPS-guided crafts called "spoofing."
Fox News reports that "spoofing" has emerged as the new concern among experts in GPS navigation and replaced jammers as the major security challenge to GPS-guided drones. Digital Journal reports it is believed that the Iranians brought down a US spy drone last December, using the spoofing method that involves first jamming the drone's GPS computers, then hacking into its GPS system and re-configuring the system's coordinates to make it land at a chosen location.
RT reports Humphrey said: “Spoofing a GPS receiver on a UAV ("Unmanned Aerial Vehicle") is just another way of hijacking a plane.”
Fox News explains that a jammer works by confusing GPS signals, but spoofers represent a major advancement because they can actually take over a drone's navigation computers and allow the hijacker to redirect the drone as he desires. Humphrey described his $1,000 device as the most advance spoofer available. He used it to send more powerful signals to the drone than those coming from controlling orbiting satellites. With the signals, he infiltrated the drone's GPS system. The signals from Humphreys' spoofer simulate the signals from the orbiting satellite and the drone "thinks" it is still receiving signals from a legitimate source.
According to Humphreys, “In 5 or 10 years you have 30,000 drones in the airspace. Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us.”
Humphreys's demonstration follows a move by Congress to open up US airspace to government and commercial drone flights by 2015. Humphreys told Fox News: "The real danger here, however, is that the government is currently considering plans that will allow local law enforcement agencies and other organizations from coast-to-coast to control drones of their own in America’s airspace."
The plan that would allow police spy drones to fly over American cities monitoring the ground has raised concerns about an emerging "surveillance society." The plan could also allow companies such as FedEX and DHS to deliver packages across the country using drones.
According to RT,
"domestic drones are already being used by the DHS and other governmental agencies, and several small-time law enforcement groups have accumulated UAVs of their own as they await clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration. Indeed, by 2020 there expects to be tens of thousands of drones diving and dipping through US airspace."
Humphreys's recent demonstration, however, raises even more compelling questions about the plan than previously raised. He asks: “What if you could take down one of these drones delivering FedEx packages and use that as your missile? That’s the same mentality the 9-11 attackers had."
According to Fox News, last Tuesday, in the desert of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, FAA and Department of Homeland Security officials witnessed Humphreys demonstrate how easy it could be for someone with the right equipment to hijack a drone. The message from his demonstrations was clear to the officials: a terrorist group could easily use a spoofer to launch a 9/11-style attack in U.S. airspace. Humphreys told Fox News: "I’m worried about them crashing into other planes. I’m worried about them crashing into buildings. We could get collisions in the air and there could be loss of life, so we want to prevent this and get out in front of the problem.”
Fox News reports that DHS is addressing the risk through its "Patriot Watch" and "Patriot Shield" programs, but the programs are not well funded and were mostly developed for defense against jammers and not against the more advanced spoofer technology. Besides, civilian GPS are not encrypted and are therefore vulnerable to infiltration. Military UAVs on the other hand use encrypted GPS system.
Humphreys said: “It just shows that the kind of mentality that we got after 9-11, where we reinforced the cockpit door to prevent people hijacking planes -- well, we need to adopt that mentality as far as the navigation systems for these UAVs.”