UT Demo Reveals Drones Vulnerable to GPS Hijacking

 

There are a few reasons for a Longhorn football practice to be moved—a tornado, hail, and fire come to mind—but a science experiment isn’t usually one of them.

But it wasn’t just any science experiment that caused UT Athletics officials to relocate the Longhorns’ strength-training practice last week: it was a demo that revealed a new danger to our national security.

“It was funny,” says Todd Humphreys, director of UT’s Radionavigation Lab. “We were doing this huge, unprecedented demo, and the students were most excited about the fact that they moved football practice for us.”

Humphreys and a group of engineering students have dedicated their time to researching a powerful new GPS technology known as spoofing, through which one GPS signal is replaced by another.

Standing on the field on June 14, the students’ goal was to successfully hack the GPS of a drone flying high above them, and re-route it. Using a powerful spoofing device built by Humphreys, the team succeeded, causing the $60,000 burnt-orange drone to veer off course on multiple occasions.

The demo was a critical trial run—the team headed to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico just days later to perform the same experiment in front of the likes of the FAA and the Department of Homeland Security.

It should come as no surprise that the government has an interest in GPS spoofing: it’s widely believed that the U.S. spy drone that went off-course in Iran last December was the victim of a GPS attack. And, in February, Congress ordered the FAA to establish rules for government and commercial drone usage on U.S. soil by 2015—a plan that now has a gaping hole in it, thanks to the team’s demo.

“With the new mandate, the FAA has to deal with this out in the open,” Humphreys says. “They now see that this is a civilian problem, and it will have to be addressed before the launch in three years.”

The implications are terrifying: Humphreys’ prediction that 30,000 drones will occupy U.S. airspace in the next 10 years, coupled with the ease with which the team brought down the drone’s sophisticated GPS system, seems to scream one word: terrorism, similar to a plane hijacking—and on American soil no less.

“I’m hoping that the FAA will address this problem before the drones launch,” Humphreys says. “Meanwhile at UT, we’ll be looking for solutions. We’re engineers—we see a problem, but it’s fixable.”

Read more about Humphreys and the Radionavigation Lab’s GPS research in the July|August issue of The Alcalde.

Top, the burnt-orange drone flies over the football field at DKR-Memorial Stadium. Inset, Todd Humphreys gives a quick rundown of the demo to a group of high school students. Photos courtesy Cockrell School of Engineering.

 

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