Team commandeers GPS signals of UAV from outside

A University of Texas at Austin research team has demonstrated that the GPS signals of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, can be commandeered by an outside source.

According to a statement, the discovery could factor heavily into the implementation of a new federal mandate to allow thousands of civilian drones into US airspace by 2015.

Todd Humphreys, assistant professor at Cockrell School of Engineering, and his students were invited by the US 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.

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 US Department of Defense (DoD) aviation policy analyst at Overlook Systems Technologies, which is working with the US government to develop programs that identify and mitigate spoofing attacks.

Humphreys said his research team wanted to demonstrate the potential risks associated with spoofing early on in the Federal Aviation Administration’s task to write the mandated rules that will allow government and commercial drones in US airspace by 2015.

‘We’re raising the flag early on in this process so there is ample opportunity to improve the security of civilian drones from these attacks, as the government is committed to doing,’ Humphreys said.

During the spoofing demonstration at White Sands, the research team took control of a hovering UAV from about a kilometre away. Next year, it plans to perform a similar demonstration on a moving UAV from 10km away.