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Drone ‘spoofing’ could allow terrorist groups to take control of unmanned aircraft

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Congress has given the FAA until 2015 to come up with rules to allow unmanned drones wide access to U.S. airspace.

But one noted researcher on GPS navigation has discovered a problem that could jeopardize national security and is urging the federal government to either come up with a fix - or scrap the idea altogether.

Todd Humphreys and his team from the University of Texas punched a few keystrokes into their computer transmitter during a drone demonstration and watched as the aircraft went off wildly off course.

The transmitter sends false signals to the drone's navigation system - a so-called "Spoofer".

The effect is so dramatic; a safety pilot with a radio control has to save the drone from crashing.

"Spoofing a GPS receiver on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is just another way of hijacking a plane," Humphreys said.

If that sounds shocking - it's because it is. With this experiment, Humphreys illuminated a gaping hole in the government's plan to open up us airspace to GPS-guided drones.

"In 5 to 10 years, you could have 30,000 drones in the airspace and each one of these could be a potential missile used against us," he continued.

Until now, GPS guided drones have been limited mostly to the battlefield in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.

Earlier this year, congress ordered the FAA to come up with rules to allow drones to fly over us soil by 2015.

They could be used for law enforcement, monitoring transmission and pipelines for utilities, even delivering packages across the country.

The founder of FEDEX has said he wants a fleet of cargo-plane sized drones in the air as soon as possible.

The reason why this is so concerning is because as drones get more and more integrated in us airspace, they won't have an operator with a joystick backing them up.

They'll rely almost exclusively on a GPS radio to get from place to place. And that radio can be hacked.

"What if you could take down one of these drones delivering FEDEX packages and use that as your missile. That's the same mentality the 9-11 hijackers had," Humphreys continued.

The government is acutely aware of the problem.

Last week - at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, officials from the FAA and Department of Homeland Security watched as Humphreys' team repeatedly took control of a drone.

These experiments are the first time in the U.S. that anyone has used a "Spoofer" to hijack an unmanned aerial vehicle.

But Humphreys says, if he can do it, so could a terrorist group with the right resources.

"I'm worried about them crashing into other planes. I'm worried about them crashing into buildings," Humphreys said.

Last December, Iran claimed that it took control of this U.S. drone, forcing it from the sky.

Humphreys thinks the Iranians simply confused it by jamming the GPS, which put the drone into automatic landing mode.
"Spoofing" takes it to an entirely new level.

The aircraft can be controlled precisely - made to do whatever the hijacker wants it to.

Humphreys cautions that unless the government can eliminate this vulnerability, it should put on hold any plans to open U.S. skies to unmanned aerial vehicles.

"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," Humphreys continued.

Otherwise - the government may only give terrorists a tempting target to go after.

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