How to spoof and ‘jack a UAV

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have successfully demonstrated how the GPS signals of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can be commandeered by hackers. 

Interestingly enough, Professor Todd Humphreys and his students were recently asked by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to attempt the demonstration in White Sands, New Mexico.

Using a small, yet sophisticated UAV along with hardware and software developed by Humphreys and his students, the research team repeatedly managed to overtake navigational signals sent 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 an unauthorized navigational course set by a 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 when a US 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.

“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.

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 explained.

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.