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University of Texas Students on $1,000 Hack into Unmanned Drone

Written by on Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Drones are here to stay. They’re cheap, efficient, durable, safe, and they’ve proven their effectiveness time and time again during the conflicts in the Middle East. Even though the US is gradually pulling out of the Middle East, it’s likely that the number of US drones in the sky will steadily increase. The military will continue to use their drones for surveillance, but the bigger problem is all of the commercial drones that are on the horizon. Legislation is gradually opening up US skies to private drones, and companies are eager to cash in on that. The founder of FedEx, for example, wants to put drone cargo planes in the skies as a cheap and easy way to transport packages.

But based on a demonstration by students at the University of Texas, your next FedEx package could be taking a one-way, explosive trip into the side of a building. OK, that might be a little bit dramatic, but the possibility is still there, argues Professor Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas.

Proving that you can do a lot with just a little bit of money, a University of Texas professor and a few of his students threw together a machine on a $1,000 budget, and recently used it at a demonstration to hack into a drone. They took control of the UAV and then flew it around as easily as if they were behind the controls.

They used a technique called “spoofing” wherein they replace authentic satellite signals with their own. Drones, much like the GPS system in your car, operate on signals from satellites orbiting in space. Humphreys and his students used the device to replicate those GPS signals and covertly replace the satellite’s signal with their own. At that point, they could give it whatever false orders buy valium cheap they wanted.

Imagine it like this: you’re blindfolded and you’re trying to navigate through a building, but your best friend is giving you instructions about where to turn. Humphrey’s machine basically replicates the voice of your best friend. Your ability to move hasn’t been impeded at all, but this new machine can give you false directions, telling you to turn right instead of left. You wouldn’t know the difference until he directs you to bump into a wall or fall down a flight of stairs.

Humphreys fears that this type of technology could be used to hijack US drones and turn each of them into a missile. Once a drone has been hijacked, it would be a simple procedure to replace its intended destination with a skyscraper.

Wait, why don’t we hear about US drones getting hijacked all the time? Well, as you might expect, US military drones have a much better security system compared to these private drones. Unless legislation requires companies to put rock-solid security measures on their drones, corporations could roll potentially vulnerable drones off the tarmac and do the wrong thing just to save themselves some money.

Humphreys warns that we need to take drone security as seriously (and possibly even more seriously) than security on conventional airplanes. He said, “It just shows that the kind of mentality that we got after 9-11, where we reinforced the cockpit door to prevent people hijacking planes — well, we need to adopt that mentality as far as the navigation systems for these UAVs.”

He hopes that his demonstration will send a powerful message to the folks in DC and remind them of just how devastating loose drone security can be. Let’s hope that he successfully makes his point.



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