Hijacking a Drone

droneDrones are unmanned flying vehicles which are controlled by operators from thousands of miles away. They are used extensively in Afghanistan to track the Taliban’s activities. There has been increase talk among law enforcement in the United States that using drones might be useful in fighting crime. There is a Federal mandate that would permit drones to be used in US airspace. There are many questions involving the use of drones including privacy rights, lack of search warrants …. There are also technical questions. Right now the biggest problem that the DHS and the FAA are facing involving drones are jammers which don’t control the drones but simply jam the signal. This is the way the Iranians insist they were able to bring down a drone in 2011. Although that is still disputed by the US who insist it was operator error and not Iranian jamming that caused the drone to land off course.

However solving the jamming problem maybe easy compared to the problem of spoofing. Spoofing is where the drone is actually controlled by a third-party. In order for spoofing to be successful the drones GPS system must be hacked. That is what the University of Texas, Cockrell School of Engineering did under Assistant Professor Todd Humphreys when it hijacked a drone using $1,000 worth of equipment and custom software. These drones were using unencrypted software that the University of Texas team was able to hack. Their signal was more powerful than the GPS signal that the drone was receiving from the satellite that was originally controlling it. They were able to over ride that GPS signal sending the drone where they wanted to. As you can image this is a huge potential problem. Imagine what would happen if a terrorist group was able to hack a drone and send it where ever they wanted it to. They could control it from anywhere and sending it crashing into buildings with no risk to themselves.

Right now the DHS is still working on the jamming problem through the Patriot Watch and the Patriot Shield programs but the programs are underfunded and haven’t even started looking into the spoofing problem. Before we allow drones to fly above US cities we might want to find a solution to both jamming and spoofing first.