J. D. Heyes
It’s not something most of us want to contemplate, but the implications are too powerful to ignore: Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have discovered a way to “hijack” the GPS signals which guide some of the nation’s most sophisticated drones, and they fear our terrorist enemies might be able to eventually do the same thing.
That’s a problem, they say, because as the use of military-grade drones becomes more fashionable here at home, terrorists who obtain the capability to intercept them could then turn them into guided missiles and use them as weapons, imitating the 9/11 attacks on a smaller, but more frequent, scale.
In a recent test initiated by the Department of Homeland Security, the UT researchers proved they could intercept a drone’s GPS signals and take it over with a technique known as “spoofing.” The high-tech hijacking procedure is described as “the transmission of matched-GPS-signal-structure interference in an attempt to commandeer the tracking loops of a victim receiver and thereby manipulate the receiver’s timing or navigation solution,” according to Prof. Todd E. Humphreys, who led the research team.
Spoofing goes way beyond jamming
Some experts have suggested that’s how Iran managed to bring down a U.S. stealth RQ-170 drone hovering over its territory in 2011. One of the most sophisticated intelligence assets in the nation’s arsenal, Iran said initially that it shot down the craft, but an increasing number of experts believe its GPS signal was either jammed or “hijacked,” allowing Iran to intercept the aircraft intact.
“Spoofing a GPS receiver on a UAV is just another way of hijacking a plane,” said Humpheys, of UT-Austin’s Radionavigation Lab.
Spoofing goes beyond simple jamming of GPS signals and has a much more diabolical potential. Jammers simply scramble or muddle signals, but spoofers are a quantum leap in technology because they are capable of manipulating computers which navigate the drones by using false information that, for all intents and purposes, looks real to the craft.
Humphreys’ spoofer – which he called the most advanced ever built – is capable of infiltrating a drone’s GPS system with a signal more powerful than the one it receives from GPS satellites hovering above the earth.
He says initially his spoofer sends a signal that matches the GPS signal being transmitted to the drone by its operator, so the craft doesn’t know the difference. From there, he implements his own flight plan and commands to the drone’s on-board computer, effectively hijacking it.
That’s a very serious situation, he told Fox News.
“In five or 10 years you have 30,000 drones in the airspace. Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us,” he said.
Currently, drones do not operate broadly in U.S. airspace, but that’s a trend that is about to change.