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College Professor Hacks UAV Guidance System With Under $1,000 Worth of Equipment

If you’ve been worried about the number of law enforcement agencies that want to use drones to surveil the domestic populace, then here’s one more thing to freak out about: They are pathetically easy to hijack. In fact, a determined individual can do it with less than $1,000 worth of equipment. 

In a report aired on Fox NewsUniversity of Texas at Austin Professor Todd Humphreys demonstrated how easy hijacking an unmanned drone can be. Using a device to “spoof” the navigation signal from the Global Positioning System, Humphreys and his team effectively took control of a small demonstration vehicle. The drone used in Humphrey’s presentation was a small helicopter UAV, similar to the ShadowHawk pictured above.

By sending out a signal that looks like GPS, Humphreys was able to trick the drone into a new set of commands. Wikipedia has a delightfully deft description of how it works:

Because GPS systems work by measuring the time it takes for a signal to travel from the satellite to the receiver, a successful spoofing requires that the attacker know precisely where the target is so that the spoofed signal can be structured with the proper signal delays. A GPS spoofing attack begins by broadcasting a slightly more powerful signal that produces the correct position, and then slowly deviates away towards the position desired by the spoofer, because moving too quickly will cause the receiver to lose signal lock altogether, at which point the spoofer works only as a jammer.

Though the ease with which the team seized control of the drone will no doubt turn some heads, it’s worth noting that Humphreys works at the University’s Radionavigation Laboratory and is uniquely suited to pull off such a feat. However, the low cost of Humphrey’s spoofing device — which Russia Today described as “the most advanced one ever built” — suggests that this kind of device could be quickly and easily manufactured by those who don’t understand how it works. And that’s scary.

The drawbacks of GPS has been known for a while, but the difficulty in replacing it with a new standard has yet to gain any real traction. As unnerving as law enforcement drones running out of control is, the fact that this same kind of attack could easily be done to any of the numerous GPS devices people interact with on a daily basis. Hopefully, this stunt by Humphreys will get people to stand up and take notice.

(Fox via Russia Today via NOSInt, top pic of ShadowHawk UAV, one of many drones marketed towards law enforcement)

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