A University of Texas at Austin research team successfully demonstrated for the first time that the GPS signals of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, can be commandeered by an outside source — a discovery that could factor heavily into the implementation of a new federal mandate to allow thousands of civilian drones into the U.S. airspace by 2015.
Cockrell School of Engineering Assistant Professor Todd Humphreys and his students were invited by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to attempt the demonstration in White Sands, New Mexico in late June. Using a small but sophisticated UAV along with hardware and software developed by Humphreys and his students, the research team repeatedly overtook navigational signals going to the GPS-guided vehicle.
Known as “spoofing,” the technique creates false civil GPS signals that trick the vehicle’s GPS receiver into thinking nothing is amiss — even as it steers a new navigational course induced by the outside hacker. Because spoofing fools GPS receivers’ on both their location and time, some fear that most GPS-reliant devices, infrastructure and markets are vulnerable to attacks. That fear was underscored — but not proven — when a U.S. military drone disappeared over Iran late last year and showed up a week later, intact, and in the care of Iranians who claimed to have brought the vehicle down with spoofing.
The recent demonstration by University of Texas at Austin researchers is the first known unequivocal demonstration that commandeering a UAV via GPS spoofing is technically feasible.
“I think this demonstration should certainly raise some eyebrows and serve as a wake-up call of sorts as to how safe our critical infrastructure is from spoofing attacks,” said Milton R. Clary, a senior Department of Defense (DoD) Aviation Policy Analyst at Overlook Systems Technologies, which is working with the federal government to develop programs that identify and mitigate spoofing attacks.
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.