Drone Lobbying Group Says the Average Person Couldn’t Hack a UAV

By Carlton Purvis

As the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry grows, so do concerns about their safety. A congressional hearing set for Thursday morning aims to examine the pros and cons of expanding the use of drones and get the facts around reports that UAVs can be easily hacked.

Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) CEO Michael Toscano says hacking a unmanned aerial vehicle is “outside the capability of any average American citizen” and very difficult to pull off in real-world conditions in his testimony prepared for Thursday morning’s House Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management hearing. In light of recent media attention, Toscano says referring to a report from Fox News that went viral, GPS spoofing is not a new issue and technologies already exist to counter it.

In June, Fox reported that University of Texas professor Todd Humphreys was able to easily hijack a UAV by using a device to overpower GPS signals being received by the aircraft, also called spoofing. Humphreys used about $1,000 worth of equipment.

“In five or 10 years you have 30,000 drones in the airspace…Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us,” he told Fox. Humphreys will also be speaking at the hearing Thursday morning.

Toscano says hacking a UAV sounds simpler than it actually is.

“To successfully spoof a GPS signal, one must have the equipment and capability to broadcast a counterfeit signal at a high enough power level to overpower the GPS signals emanating from more than 20 satellites in orbit around the earth…If the target vehicle is not in close proximity to the spoofing device, this requires a detection system such as radar. Meanwhile, custom software is needed to make adjustments to the target vehicle’s course,” says his written testimony.

If an aircraft is low to the ground and hovering in place, this type of spoofing would be “feasible,” but in real world conditions much more difficult, he said.

“It took the University of Texas team four years to develop the necessary software, and the professor overseeing the experiment has acknowledged that the skills involved in ‘spoofing’ are ‘outside the capability of any average American citizen,’” he wrote in his testimony.

The UAV industry is looking for way to advance existing technology and make it applicable to unmanned aircraft -- the latest being the Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module (SAASM). SAASM uses authentication of encrypted satellite signals and is already in use by the military to prevent GPS spoofing.

Read Toscano’s complete testimony here. Earlier this month, AUVSI released it's UAV code of conduct as well.

You can watch the entire hearing live on the Homeland Security Committee live feed starting at 9:30 a.m. EST.

photo by Dysanovic/flickr


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