Credit: Post based on Ryan Whitwam writing for Geek.com
Look! Up in the sky…Is it a bird? a plane? No! It’s an unmanned Predator drone, hijacked by students! That’s right. Whiz kids from University of Texas at Austin took control of an aerial drone by altering its course.
The task was shockingly simple. Instead of hacking the primary control firmware, they fed its GPS mechanism a false signal, tricking the flying Al Qaeda hunter into heading wherever they wished, perhaps into the 3rd floor showers of the sorority. This was no fly-by-night operation (pardon the pun). The Department of Homeland asked students to try hacking the drone and gaining control. Was it expensive? It required only $1000 worth of equipment to seize control of a multi-million dollar piece of technology used by the US military and CIA.
The government became concerned about the vulnerability of drone aircraft after it became apparent that Iran had most likely taken control of a US drone and crashed it in Iranian territory several months ago. The Austin students, led by professor Todd Humphreys, used the GPS equipment to spoof the GPS signal being sent to the drone. Spoofing the signal means the students were able to trick the drone into mistaking their signal for the real one, allowing them to lead the drone astray. The aircraft being used employs the same unencrypted GPS signals used by government vehicles.
This hack presents a serious problem for proponents of using domestic drones. If any kid with $1000 and a little know-how can crash a drone into things or perhaps drop a payload!), well–that’s just not cricket. It is currently illegal to use drone aircraft in US airspace without special clearance from the FAA, and now it might take a little longer than expected for that to change.