Todd Humphreys

Smartphones may soon be able to precisely track users’ position and orientation to the centimeter using GPS technology, according to researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering. 

Engineering assistant professor Todd Humphreys and engineering professor Robert W. Heath and their research team developed the technology, which has a variety of applications for cell phones, virtual reality and transportation. 

Centimeter-precise GPS technology could virtually connect people across the world in a real-time, 3-D environment, according to Humphreys. 

“Imagine games where, rather than sit in front of a monitor and play, you are in your backyard actually running around with other players,” Humphreys said in a statement. “To be able to do this type of outdoor, multiplayer virtual reality game, you need highly accurate position and orientation that is tied to a global reference frame.”

Ken Pesyna, electrical and computer engineering graduate student and researcher, said the research team has dramatically reduced the cost and price of GPS antennae, so they can fit on a smartphone or on top of a car. 

“Our real breakthrough is that you don’t need expensive antennae,” Pesyna said. “They can be made smaller and cheaper.” 

Pesyna said precise GPS technology could help autonomous cars drive passengers safely to their destination. 

“Eventually, in the future, we won’t be driving our cars,” Pesyna said. “Our cars will be driving us, and, to do that safely, the cars will have to know where they are relative to other cars very accurately down to a couple centimeters.”

Pesyna said this GPS technology could prevent car theft and drunken driving before fully autonomous driving comes to market. 

“We’ve done research in this area for security to be able to detect if it’s you driving your car, or if it’s someone else with different driving habits,” Pesyna said. “We can ultimately use it to detect drunk driving behaviors. There might be obvious signs in how you drive that can be noticed in the centimeter accurate trajectories.”

Research transportation engineer Jennifer Duthie said researchers from UT’s Center for Transportation Research are hoping to pilot a project this summer to gather data from the movement of bicycles and motor vehicles using GPS. 

“We’re hoping to do a pilot this summer where we put [the technology] on a few bicycles and just see it how we can use this data for better bicycle planning,” Duthie said. “You can extract certain driver characteristics, look how people make turns.”

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Former NASA mission leader Michael Watkins will become the next director of the Center for Space Research at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

After working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 22 years and leading teams for many missions, including the Cassini and Curiosity missions, Watkins will assume leadership at the Center for Space Research in July.

“My experience at NASA gave me a very deep understanding of the how space missions are really developed and implemented, which will help us successfully propose new instruments and missions,” Watkins said in an email.

The center focuses on using space-based data to learn about Earth itself, as well as the interior of other planets,according to Watkins.

“The best place to study the Earth as a planet is from space since satellites can observe the entire Earth essentially all day, including over deep jungles and over the ocean, over Antarctica and those places that would be almost impossible to constantly observe from here on the Earth,” Watkins said. “Satellites really provide our best scientific data.”

Todd Humphreys, assistant professor at the center, said the center’s focus can impact research into topics like climate change.

“A lot of what we understand about Earth and how it’s changing comes from space,” Humphreys said. “It’s much better in some cases to research about space than to scratch the surface of the Earth. By gathering data from space satellites, we have data that is useful in the climate debate because those data are stable and span decades of research.”

Humphreys said he believes Watkins’ experience at NASA will benefit the program overall.

“I think he’s going to bring a lot of good connections and a head for finding the right big problems to solve,” Humphreys said.

Noel Clemens, chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, said Watkins will continue the advancement of the center’s satellite research program and expand into new areas of research.

“We expect Watkins to continue the center’s focus on remote sensing of the Earth from space but also to expand its mission to include planetary missions, increased emphasis on small satellite development and increased collaboration with Earth scientists,” Clemens said in an email.

As the climate continues to change, satellite-based sensing of the Earth will become increasingly important, according to Clemens.

“CSR’s signature satellite program, GRACE, is making important measurements that show the ocean levels are rising, the ice sheets are receding and the magnitude of drought in California,” Clemens said. “When coupled with advanced computer models of the water cycle, the data provided by CSR will help scientists predict how climate change will impact water sources for cities and agriculture.”

Photo Credit: Andrew Brooks | Daily Texan Staff

Officers from the Austin Police Department said they will no longer check to see if drone operators have a certificate for themselves or for their drone, unless the drone is flying near a crowded area. 

The change is part of an attempt to shift focus to policing drones used near large events, such as concerts and sports games, while giving individuals flying drones in less crowded areas freedom, APD officers said.

Although policing drone usage hasn’t been much of an issue for APD, chief of staff Brian Manley said the department wanted to make the policies more friendly for those who may want to fly drones in their yard.

“We’re always focused on the safety and well being for the community, and we realized that the ordinance is quite restrictive in that it bans all use in all places in all circumstances — unless the individual had the licenses and qualifications,” Manley said. “Individuals flying these in their own yards … [don’t] really present the same issues.”

Drones’ potential to cause disturbances became evident when APD heard concerns about the drones’ presence during the South By Southwest festival this March, Manley said. In another incident, a drone flew over the Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium during the Longhorns’ first football game of the season.

“I honestly thought that someone did it to get a bird’s-eye-view picture of the stadium during the game,” electrical engineering senior Mary Ryan Gilmore said. “I’m not sure what it was really for.”

While the event at the football game did involve a high profile drone sighting, aerospace engineering assistant professor Todd Humphreys said ahe believes recreational use of drones has not been a problem in Austin.

Often, people have concerns about footage captured by drones of people without their knowledge, Humphreys said.

“If you happen to get somebody’s house in those pictures or video, and you happen to catch somebody walking in their yard, you should destroy that video instead of uploading it to YouTube,” Humphreys said.

Regardless of where drones are being used, Manley said people operating them should always be cautious of others.

“Individuals need to be careful and cautious and need to maintain a visual at all times when they’re flying these devices, so they don’t accidently bring them into an area that may place others in danger,” Manley said.

Under new rules that the Federal Aviation Association is considering implementing, drone operators would be required to take a test to become certified to fly, which Humphreys said he thinks is reasonable.

“If you want to become a hand radio operator, you have to take a test and become government certified before you can broadcast in the space that has been allocated for amateur use,” Humphrey said. “I think it’s a perfectly reasonable parallel to say that if you’re going to be operating a drone, you need to have passed a test and gotten the certificate.”

A team of UT researchers took control of the GPS navigation system of a yacht in the Mediterranean Sea in June without detection, causing it to veer off-course, in the process of developing anti-spoofing technology.

A group of graduate students under the guidance of aerospace engineering professor Todd Humphreys conducted this experiment to demonstrate the danger to vessels caused by “spoofing,” an electronic attack on a GPS system that tricks it into receiving a attacking signal. According to the researchers, spoofing attacks can be used to cause target ships to become lost, drift into territorial waters of an unfriendly state or even run aground in shallow waters.

“What’s most sinister is that the victim ship can hardly tell it’s being spoofed,” Humphreys said. “So it’s all the dangers you would expect from being led off course without your knowing.”

The team set the ship off course by several degrees with the custom device, which works by first receiving the same satellite signal being used by the victim ship’s GPS and copying its time signature, the code within GPS signals that indicates when a signal was broadcast from its source.  Because the spoofing deviced must receive this same transmission, it must be relatively close to its target to initiate an attack. The device then broadcasts its own signal with the same time signature and gradually intensifies it until it overpowers the original signal. Done correctly, this transition sets off no electronic alarms.

From the deck of the ship, aerospace engineering graduate students Jahshan Bhatti and Daniel Shepard used the spoofer to manipulate the ship’s on-board GPS to falsely indicate the ship was veering a few degrees off-course, causing the crew to try to correct the yacht’s path. By doing so, the crew actually caused the ship to move increasingly further away from its intended path, while the GPS indicated that the ship was then on the correct course.

The group claims they are the first to have demonstrated a true spoofing attack. Bhatti said there have been reports of other attacks on GPS systems but these attacks are easily-detectable, compared to what the UT researchers have accomplished with their spoofing device that went unoticed.

Humprey was inspired by a story of an American drone, that was supposedly tricked the GPS navigation though the claim may have been false. Humphreys and his graduate students to research the possibility of spoofing UAVs and other devices that depend upon GPS. In the summer of 2012, the group set out to test their research publicly for the first time, receiving approval from the Department of Homeland Security.

“We expected them to turn us down flat-out,” Shepard said. “But it turns out our contact at DHS… was really excited about it.”

The group used their spoofing device to take control of a drone that was hovering in midair, fooling its autopilot into making the vehicle dive toward the ground.   

At a presentation of his research in March, Humphreys met Andrew Schofield, master of the White Rose of Drachs who realized that his ship’s navigation system could be vulnerable to a similar type of attack. After the presentation, Schofield approached Humphreys and invited him and his team aboard the yacht to conduct a spoofing experiment.

Shepard said another possible target of spoofing are attacks on infrastructure. Particularly vulnerable is the nation’s power-grid, which is increasingly implementing GPS technology to more accurately meter allocations of electricity across the grid. An attacker could theoretically spoof a single monitoring station to falsify measurements, causing a transmission line to appear to need to be shut down.

“At the very least, this might cause a small-area blackout,” Shepard said. “But if you end up with a perfect storm of conditions, it might be able to cascade into something much larger, like the Northeast blackout in 2005.”

Though spoofing could cause these and other serious problems in the future to institutions that rely on GPS technology, the researchers claim that for the time being, the only groups capable of spoofing attacks are the governments of enemy states.

“It took five PhD students about five years of working on this to get the spoofer to the state it is now,” Shepard said. “At the moment, this is out of reach of your everyday Joe and the majority of terrorist organizations. But a state agency could do this.”

Though spoofing attacks can be both devastating and difficult to detect, there are several ways of defending against attacks, Bhatti said. The most effective means of anti-spoofing would be to include cryptographic signatures within GPS signals to help authenticate the source of a transmission. However, the signal format used by nearly all civilian GPS devices does not allow for digital signatures.

“We want the government to eventually update the signal to have digital signatures,” Bhatti said. “That’s the long-term solution. But of course, this is going to take a long time.”

A more short-term solution, Bhatti said, would be to use two or more antennae in tandem to determine the direction a signal is coming from, which could foil an attack if the attacker uses only one spoofing device. However, most devices don’t have room for multiple antennae, and more-sophisticated attacks could still be successful.

The introduction of new GPS systems will also help defend against spoofing, Bhatti said. Currently, the only fully-operational systems in the world are the American GPS system and the Russian GLONASS. As new systems come on-line in the future, such as the European Union’s Galileo system and China’s COMPASS, devices will able to compare information received by each satellite system against that of other systems. Successful spoofing attacks will have to take all of these systems into account, making attacks more expensive to conduct.

Bhatti says in order to develop these and other spoofing defenses further, they need to continue develop spoofing technology.

“We want to develop anti-spoofing technologies,” Bhatti said. “The only way to do that was to make the spoofer. It’s sort of like a cat-and-mouse game. We build a better spoofer, [then] we build better anti-spoofing.”

Names like “Predator” and “Reaper” make drones seem like either nightmarish weapons of death controlled by unseen hands, or awesome tools of destruction to strike fear into our enemies, depending on what side of the argument you are on. But are drones infallible? Do they live up to their hype? An engineering team at UT led by  Aerospace Engineering professor Todd Humphreys revealed a glaring Achilles’ heel in drone navigation systems last June that could deconstruct their presumed near-mythical invulnerability.

As it turns out, drones do not use some esoteric location-mapping technique accessible only to the brightest aerospace and computer engineers; they use GPS — not much more sophisticated than the GPS in your smartphone — which receives radio signals from satellites in orbit around Earth and uses them to triangulate position. GPS receivers are vulnerable to manipulation by a technique called “spoofing.” 

Spoofing requires a transmitter no wider than your average desk top to send radio signals that are calibrated to match satellite signals in shape, though with slightly elevated intensity. Once the GPS receiver on the drone gets the new stronger signal, it will give this fake signal priority over its original signal, allowing the team with the spoofing device to trick the drone into going off course.

It is easy to see the initial implications of such a device. If terrorists or unscrupulous individuals were able to use spoofing to their advantage, drones would likely be rendered nearly useless, like blind airline pilots trying to make a landing. Worse yet, with adept maneuvering they could be used as blunt weapons, flying into aircraft and buildings on the ground. 

However, spoofing has limited effectiveness on U.S. military drones deployed overseas. Whereas your average American uses a free-form GPS system, the U.S. military uses a complex system of encryption to protect its drones. Thus it is unlikely that any terrorist group or criminal organization could get their hands on enough resources to successfully spoof those systems. 

Individual governments, on the other hand, do have the resources to take down a U.S. military drone in the right circumstances, and it is believed that Iran used a large array of spoofing signals to capture a Sentinel stealth drone on Dec. 4, 2011. If a country puts enough resources into it, even the most advanced drones in the world can be rendered useless by spoofing.

Drones employed by the highest echelons of the U.S. military and the CIA overseas are one thing, but those are not the only drones used in the US. Around 10 drones fly from Corpus Christi along the U.S.-Mexico border year-round, operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. According to Humphreys, they probably do not employ the GPS encryption system used by their cousins overseas.  As a result, they’re open targets for spoofing.

Spoofing devices are not easy to make; the one used by UT took three Ph.D.s three years and $1,000 to build. But it’s getting easier. Through software-defined radio, Humphreys says that the difficulties in creating a spoofing device will become “a coding issue, not a radio issue.” As the technology spreads, it will be less about technical pitfalls than an individual coder’s ability to work the system.

At the moment, however, the U.S. drone program is state-of-the-art, and its issues are moral rather than technical. As the United Nations investigates the legality and civilian casualties incurred by drone strikes, and a previously classified Justice Department memo detailing the U.S. government’s defense of the drone program was leaked to the public, it seems like the drone program is becoming as much of a problem as it is an asset. Though drones might seem like the weapons of the future, we need to consider seriously whether their benefits outweigh their moral, legal and technical hurdles.

Nicholson is an archaeology freshman from San Antonio. 

A UT professor testified before Congress Thursday on the vulnerability of the federal government’s unmanned aerial vehicles, which were successfully hacked for less than $2,000 in June.

Todd Humphreys, assistant aerospace engineering professor, led the research team responsible for developing spoofing, a technique that uses common hacking software to hack into GPS-enabled devices. Federal officials asked Humphreys to testify as an expert witness and explain the possible consequences of hacking into the aerial vehicles, specifically drones, which are used by the military for surveillance purposes. The U.S. government recently issued a mandate to allow drones operated by civilians to take flight in 2015.

“There are simple techniques that, while not foolproof, can increase resistance to a spoofing attack significantly,” Humphreys said. “The bare fact is that anti-spoofing is hard. There’s no quick and easy and cheap solution, but there are reasonable, cost effective measures we can take in the short term.”

Humphreys and his team exhibited the success of spoofing in a June demonstration for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. In the demonstration, the team repeatedly tricked a UT helicopter drone into thinking it was higher than it should be, consequently causing it to adjust its altitude.

Daniel Shepard, an aerospace engineering graduate student who worked on developing spoofing with Humphreys, said he hopes Congress takes the safety of the drones into account.

“I hope that these congressmen, and hopefully in the future the Department of Homeland Security, take this threat seriously and are willing devote the resources required,” Shepard said. “There just needs to be some political pressure, because up until now, there hasn’t been any.”

The Federal Aviation Administration projects there to be more than 30,000 UAVs in use worldwide by the end of the decade. These drones are to be used for a range of applications such as commercial shipping, agricultural use and emergency services. 

A team of researchers at UT’s Radionavigation Laboratory recently hacked into the GPS system of a non-encrypted drone, allowing them to take full control of the vehicle.

Assistant engineering professor Todd Humphreys, and a team of UT researchers spent about four years developing software in UT’s Radionavigation Lab, which focuses on research in GPS and radio technology. The software enabled them to use spoofing, a technique which can be used to hack into GPS-enabled devices such as drones, which are pilotless airplanes primarily used for military and surveillance purposes. Humphreys said he and the team began this project to show GPS hacking is possible and what can be done with it.

“Now that people know it can feasibly be done, it should encourage developers to implement anti-spoofing technology into future GPS-enabled devices, which are not currently secure,” Humphreys said. “As for the drones, we want to help the Federal Aviation Administration devise rules on how to regulate drones operating in U.S. commercial airspace.”

In a June demonstration for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the team spoofed a supplied miniature helicopter drone into thinking that it was higher than it was and should be, causing it to drop in altitude. This is the first known demonstration to show spoofing a drone is feasible and possible, all for about $1,000. Before the official demonstration, Humphreys and his team used the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to conduct a trial of the spoofing hardware using the team’s own drone, according to the Cockrell School of Engineering.

U.S. aviation officials hope to open U.S. airspace to civilian drones by 2015, which would allow for thousands of commercial and civilian drones to fly in conjunction with manned aircraft in the next five to ten years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Humphreys worked with a budget of approximately $100,000, all of which came from UT. About $80,000 went to buying the test drone and renting a pilot, $18,000 to salaries and the remaining $2,000 to off the shelf equipment for the hacking hardware. He said he and his team are currently working on several other projects in the Radionavigation Lab such as developing opportunistic navigation, which can improve and speed the travel of GPS data by using local technologies like cell phone towers.

In addition to hacking drones, the spoofing device can also be used to manipulate iPhone and Android GPS devices.

Daniel Shepard, an aerospace engineering graduate student, said “On the iPhone video it looks like you’re tracking someone in a bike going down 24th Street, stopping at a stop sign, and then making a turn. In reality, the phone was sitting on a desk in our lab the whole time.”

Shepard said with more essential technology implementing and relying on GPS, it is important for the U.S. to find out how to prevent GPS technology from being tampered with.

“A lot of people don’t yet realize that soon even our power grids will be tied to GPS technology,” Shepard said. “Even the stock market uses GPS to keep track of time. If the GPS data was tampered with it could cause a lot of trouble. What we’re doing is trying to figure what exactly can be done, and then how it can be prevented.”