UPDATE: The research comes from the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s evident from the publication listing that they are pretty much the authority on GPS spoofing and spoof detection techniques, for anyone who wants to dive into the technical side. /UPDATE
A small surveillance drone flies over an Austin stadium, diligently following a series of GPS waypoints that have been programmed into its flight computer. By all appearances, the mission is routine.
Suddenly, the drone veers dramatically off course, careering eastward from its intended flight path. A few moments later, it is clear something is seriously wrong as the drone makes a hard right turn, streaking toward the south. Then, as if some phantom has given the drone a self-destruct order, it hurtles toward the ground. Just a few feet from certain catastrophe, a safety pilot with a radio control saves the drone from crashing into the field.
From the sidelines, there are smiles all around over this near-disaster. Professor Todd Humphreys and his team at the University of Texas at Austin’s Radionavigation Laboratory have just completed a successful experiment: illuminating a gaping hole in the government’s plan to open US airspace to thousands of drones.
They could be turned into weapons.
“Spoofing a GPS receiver on a UAV is just another way of hijacking a plane,” Humphreys told Fox News.
In other words, with the right equipment, anyone can take control of a GPS-guided drone and make it do anything they want it to.
“Spoofing” is a relatively new concern in the world of GPS navigation. Until now, the main problem has been GPS jammers, readily available over the Internet, which people use to, for example, hide illicit use of a GPS-tracked company van. It’s also believed Iran brought down that U.S. spy drone last December by jamming its GPS, forcing it into an automatic landing mode after it lost its bearings.
While jammers can cause problems by muddling GPS signals, spoofers are a giant leap forward in technology; they can actually manipulate navigation computers with false information that looks real. With his device — what Humphreys calls the most advanced spoofer ever built (at a cost of just $1,000) — he infiltrates the GPS system of the drone with a signal more powerful than the one coming down from the satellites orbiting high above the earth.
Initially, his signal matches that of the GPS system so the drone thinks nothing is amiss. That’s when he attacks — sending his own commands to the onboard computer, putting the drone at his beck and call.
When armed drones are eventually deployed en mass to patrol the skies over the United States (expected to top 30,000 in the next few years), and a hellfire missile is launched onto a school playground full of unsuspecting children, it will be quite the trick when the authorities are able to deny responsibility because of scary cyber-terrorists.
That’s a worst case scenario, of course. But with all these robot overlords flying above people’s heads — proven to be hijackable by the intrepid — well is it any wonder civil rights advocates are lining up to shoot them down?
I am not sure if Humphreys has actually accomplished a drone hijacking through this theory, but as a someone who lives by the mantra “anything is possible”, well… of course. Confirmed, see top update.
I will add that from a technical standpoint and the fact that he gives a dollar figure seems to be strong evidence that he has at least sourced the means to build a spoofing device.