Students Hack Unmanned Drone

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A research team has exposed a glaring flaw in domestic drone technology.

By this point, most of us are habituated to the American military’s fondness for using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, between you and me) in far-flung combat zones. As the technology that powers these machines advances, private companies are becoming increasingly interested in possible domestic applications for the de-fanged, person-friendly cousins of the military’s UAVs. With that in mind, a team from the University of Texas at Austin’s Radionavigation Lab this week demonstrated the potential weakenesses of such systems by hacking a domestic UAV using “spoofing” tech that cost less than $1,000 to build.

Led by Professor Todd Humphreys, the team of researchers and students took control of the drone by “spoofing” its GPS system into believing that their team was supposed to be in charge of it, effectively hijacking the witless machine from the ground. They didn’t block control signals or anything; they just used their $1000-worth of radio gadgetry to fool the drone into recognizing them as its true masters. With this system in place, they were able to take complete control of the drone.

You’ll be glad to hear, I hope, that military UAVs are protected from this kind of interference by virtue of their encrypted GPS systems. However, the researchers are concerned that without similar protections, domestic drones could be used to wreak havoc within the United States (at the same as providing plot fodder for the technophobic narrators from Call of Duty: Black Ops II‘s publicity).

Speaking to Fox News, team leader Humphreys laid out his concerns. “What if you could take down one of these drones delivering FedEx packages and use that as your missile? That’s the same mentality the 9-11 attackers had,” he said. “In 5 or 10 years you have 30,000 drones in [U.S.] airspace…Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Homeland Security (DoHS) are interested in this spoofing development, with representatives from both agencies having reportedly invited the Austin team to repeat their trick under supervision. While the DoHS has been working on two anti-jamming systems in preparation for the advent of domestic drones, the department is apparently unprepared to deal with spoofing attacks at this moment in time.

Based on the agencies’ reaction this demonstration, it’d be nice to imagine that by the time Congress allows FedEx et al to pepper the skies with de-fanged UAVs, the DoHS will have spent rather more time than it has presently working on ways to protect said UAVs from terrorists, students, and remote-control hobbyists. Who said your school’s science project couldn’t help protect the nation? Way to go, University of Texas.

Source: Fox News via Scientific American

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