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Texas Researchers Hijack Drone, Expose Crucial Homeland Security Threat

June 30, 2012
Image Caption: An MQ-9 Reaper, a hunter-killer surveillance UAV. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Computer hardware and software companies have been asking hackers to break into their systems for years now. After all, the best way to find cracks in your system is to have an unaffiliated party point them out for you.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has adopted this tactic, asking a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin to hijack one of their infamous drones.

The team, led by professor Todd Humphreys, was offered $1,000 if they could successfully hack into a drone flying overhead and hijack it to fly off its course. With less than $1,000 worth of parts, Humphreys and his team from the UT Radionavigation Laboratory were able to “spoof” the GPS on the Drone and take it off its course, sending it hurtling towards the ground, pulling up just before collision, thus shining a glaring light on a potential security flaw in the drone´s technology. If a gaggle of researchers with a few hundred dollars can do it, then specially trained hackers with their government´s cash can certainly do the same, if not worse.

Spoofing a GPS system essentially tricks it into thinking the commands it is receiving are legitimate, rather than malicious. Once Humphrey´s convinced the GPS his commands weren´t amiss, he was able to control it to do whatever he wanted.

While Humphreys was proud of his team, he was also quick to point out the extreme and potential danger this gap in security poses to those on the ground.

“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 told Fox News, who broke the story earlier this week.

“In 5 or 10 years you have 30,000 drones in the airspace. Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us.”

Drones have already been widely used in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen and thus far, have been limited to battlefield use, yet to be used over American soil. This could change by 2015, however, as Congress earlier this year ordered the FAA to draft up some laws and regulations for the commercial and government use of the drones in American airspace. According to Fox News, these drones could also one day be used as surveillance in US cities. As for Humphreys´ prediction of a rogue FedEx branded drone, Fred Smith, FedEx founder has also voiced interest in using the drones to ship packages across the country.

Humphreys has also taken control of other drones in New Mexico at the White Sands Missile Range, under the supervision of the FAA and DHS. The DHS is reportedly working to take care of this GPS interference, but according to the exclusive Fox News report, these efforts are poorly funded and are focused on finding the older GPS “jammers,” instead of the new “spoofers” that Humphreys is using.

While military drones will utilize encrypted GPS systems, the commercial drones will likely use an open GPS, making them more vulnerable to these sort of attacks. Humphreys hopes his demonstrations will encourage the government to address this flaw before they begin deploying these unmanned vehicles across the US.

“I´m worried about them crashing into other planes,” he told Fox News. “I´m worried about them crashing into buildings. We could get collisions in the air and there could be loss of life, so we want to prevent this and get out in front of the problem.”


Source: Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online



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