In February, when the U.S. decided to open the skies to unmanned drones by 2015, people nervously imagined Big Brother tracking them constantly from above. Now that's the least of their worries.
Last week, a team of researchers at University of Texas showed that it's pretty easy to hack -- or "spoof" -- civilian drones, which will probably get up to cargo plane size.
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Dr. Todd Humphreys, who's been working on the project for the last three years, said he felt giddy when equipment cobbled together for $1,000 worked for the first time on a drone helicopter hovering in UT Stadium last week. The university even did the unthinkable by moving football practice for them. After that, the Department of Homeland Security invited the team to demonstrate the hack, which has big implications for U.S. security.
Humphreys told Fox News, "What if you could take down one of these drones delivering FedEx packages and use that as your missile? In five or ten years, you have 30,000 drones in [U.S.] airspace...Each one of these could be...used against us."
Spoofing represents a big leap forward from the typical GPS jamming practiced by your average drone-hacking enthusiast. While jamming just blocks GPS so the drone doesn't know where it is, spoofing involves sending out a false GPS signal strong enough to drown out the real one and trick the drone into thinking it's somewhere it isn't. With that method, it's possible to control a drone's every movement. For example, if a drone is told it's moving east and the autopilot is trained to stay in the same spot, then it compensates by moving west.
Humphreys told Hair Balls he "wouldn't even know where to start spoofing a military drone," which uses heavily encrypted GPS signals. "But we need to address this gaping vulnerability" in the civilian versions. One potential solution is authentication, which links real GPS signals to a key code verifying that they're authentic.