Professor discusses the hacking of drones

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Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

With a small unmanned drone on display at a lecture Friday, Todd Humphreys, aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics assistant professor, said drones, including military drones, have the potential to be hacked. 

Humphreys said he and his team have been researching drone hacking to provide evidence of this occurring to U.S.-owned drones.

“You take control of the drone, even though the drone’s rightful operator might not like you to,” said Humphreys, who is also the director of the University’s Radionavigation Laboratory. “This isn’t just the stuff of science fiction. In fact, it happened in real life.”

According to Humphreys, an Iranian engineer hacked a U.S. drone and brought it down in December 2011 — the same time he and his team were researching the
phenomenon. 

“My students and I happened to be doing research in this very area,” Humphreys said. “If you can take over those links and pretend that you’re the ground control, you can take over the drone.”

To simulate the hacking of a drone, which is controlled through GPS satellites and ground operators, Humphreys and his team built a device that redirected a drone by interfering with its GPS signal. 

“[These signals] look very much like GPS signals and hijack those tracking points of the GPS receiver,” Humphreys said. 

By successfully hacking their own drone, Humphreys and his team proved that it was possible for the Iranian man to have hacked a U.S. drone.

Humphreys said drones also have other uses, such as taking pictures and delivering messages. 

“You can take pictures from a vantage point that you’d never imagine possible,” Humphreys said. “You can [also] do aerial mapping.”

Andrew Kerns, electrical and computer engineering graduate student and member of the Radionavigation Laboratory, said the team’s experiments have proven the weaknesses in drones’ navigation systems.

“In this [experiment], we showed that it was possible to generate falsified GPS signals that could cause the receiver inside of the unmanned vehicle to subtract the falsified signals instead of the authentic ones and compute it [incorrectly],“ Kerns said. “[This experiment] shows that there’s a need to secure these navigation systems.”

In an interactive fair, which took place prior to the lecture, Kerns and other members of the laboratory presented some of the drones they have been working with.

“At the University of Texas, we’ve been long interested in unmanned aerial vehicles,” Humphreys said. “The drones are here, and our lives will never be the same.”