A team of researchers at the University of Texas commandeered an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) by tricking and overriding the craft's GPS, proving for the first time how easy a high-tech hijacking can be, and raising questions about the safety of a program the U.S. military has become increasing reliant on to patrol the Middle East.
What's more, the team hacked the drone using equipment that, all told, cost only about $1,000.
In June, officials from the Department of Homeland Security invited Todd Humphreys, an assistant professor from Texas' Cockrell School of Engineering, and a team of researchers out to the New Mexico desert for the challenge. Using a small, sophisticated civilian drone from the university, the team managed to repeatedly override the UAV's navigational signals, allowing them to dramatically alter the craft's preset flight path.
To hack the UAV, Humphrey's and his team used a technique known as, "spoofing," in which new signals are broadcast that reroute the vehicle while simultaneously tricking it into thinking it hasn't strayed off course. The resulting effect is similar to an action-movie robber looping surveillance camera footage to mask his movements.
Though hackers have had the power to muddle GPS signals in the past, spoofing is a huge advancement as it allows not just the clouding, but the complete rewriting, of directional signals. According to Fox News, who first reported on the story, Humphreys assembled his hacking device for around $1,000. With that one piece of equipment, he was able to broadcast a signal strong enough to override the ones beamed down from satellites.
The experiment raises concerns for the government about the safety of drones at a time when the Department of Homeland security is preparing to implement a new domestic drone surveillance program. A recent federal mandate will allow thousands of drones to fly over the U.S. by 2015, though the government has yet to finalize rules for UAVs in domestic airspace.
Though the test drone was far smaller than the drones utilized by the military for surveillance and combat, Humphreys said the technique used to hijack that test drone could readily be applied to larger aircraft.
"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," Humphrey's said, according to the Univeristy's formal write-up of the experiment.
Though spoofing has been theorized in the past, this was the first time researchers proved definitively that such a technique could be used to stealthily take control of an unmanned vehicle. The same technique was believed to be used late last year when a U.S. drone disappeared, then reappeared virtually undamaged in Iran. Iran claimed to have used spoofing to bring the vehicle down, though there was no proof that that was the case.