A U.S. test last week showed it's possible to overtake a drone's GPS system and steer the drone wherever the hijacker would like. The test means terrorists could potentially turn unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into missiles, the test's lead researcher, Todd Humphreys, told Fox News, which was first the break the story. The possibility is a worry for the U.S., which is considering rules to allow drones to fly in regular U.S. airspace by 2015.
In his test, Humphrey took over navigation of a drone at the Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin and later at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico while officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security looked on. Homeland Security invited Humphrey, an engineer at the University of Texas at Austin, to perform the test for them. The agency is studying GPS interference in its "Patriot Watch" and "Patriot Shield" programs, but these efforts are poorly funded, Fox News reported.
Humphrey's drone-commandeering method uses spoofing, which sends false GPS signals to a UAV that depends on unencrypted civil GPS signals to know where to fly. To the UAV's systems, the false signals appear real and the aircraft's controls aren't aware anything is wrong. The system cost only about $1,000 to build.
Spoofing is more sophisticated GPS jamming, a more readily available technology that brings down drones by interfering with their GPS signals. This is the first verified demonstration that GPS spoofing of UAVs is possible, according to UT Austin. In December 2011, Iranian engineers claimed they spoofed a U.S. drone to land where they wanted, which Wired reported was possible, but unlikely.
Humphreys said he was especially worried about his spoofing results because Federal Aviation Administration rules will open up airspace to UAVs in regular U.S. airspace in 2015. Tens of thousands of drones may start crisscrossing American skies, performing such humdrum duties as delivering mail. Under U.S. law now, UAVs can't fly where most piloted planes do. Instead, they're limited to military airspace and border patrol. In February, Congress passed a bill that requires the FAA to expand where military, commercial and privately-owned drones can fly.
In the future, GPS spoofing could affect automatically-driven ships and cars, as well as a "smart" grid or financial market, IEEE Spectrum reported.
In this test, Humphreys and his students hijacked their test drone from about one kilometer (0.62 miles) away. They plan to have a system that can spoof a drone from 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away next year.