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Researchers Hack Drones. A Science Project Anyone?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Civilian drones will be easier to hack because most will lack the encrypted GPS carried by military drones, like the Predator shown here.

My son Benjamin once got honorable mention for his science project, which consisted of going to a firing range and seeing whether silk is really bulletproof, as it’s sometimes purported to be. The guy at the range smiled upon hearing about what the skinny teenager was up to and said the silk would never stand up to I-forget-what-caliber of bullet.

He was right. The piece of material Benjamin brought to the range didn’t hold its lead. (The shooting range guy pulled the trigger because Benjamin didn’t have his gun license yet. He’s 26 now, and still doesn’t, but he did learn how to drive, in the meantime, but not a stick shift.)

Anyway, his offering blew away all of the volcano projects in his class at Hunter College High School. That was then. In the past 10 years, and, in fact, in the past 10 days, prospects for perversely cool science projects have gotten a lot better.

Case in point: Todd Humphreys and his team from the Radionavigation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin reportedly demonstrated last week in front of Department of Homeland Security officials that it is relatively easy to take control of an airborne drone by hacking into its GPS system. This is not jamming the signal, perhaps what happened to the U.S. drone brought down in Iran. This is “spoofing,” in which you actually become a ground-based pilot.

The cost to convert a drone “on the fly” into your own version of the world’s best remote-controlled hobby airplane ever: $1,000, actually, not much more than the list price for a high-end iPad.

The worry, of course, is that someone co-opts the technology for something other than science projects—and I don’t mean forest fire surveillance. One drone demo took place over an Austin stadium, according to Fox News, which broke the story. And Humphreys was quoted by Fox: “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 attackers had.”

The Department of Homeland Security is supposed to be dealing with all of this, but doesn’t seem to have  gotten very far, hence the rationale for Humphreys’ commandeered flyby. Maybe a skinny high school kid can underline some of the vulnerabilities to the public and government officials better than a college professor. After all, guns are so nineties.

Let’s see what happens from here. At the very least, though, Humphreys’ demo is likely to vie with genetically modified bird flu for the top spot on the existential dread list.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. vapur 6:46 pm 06/28/2012

    Hmm … so hijack a drone and turn it into a missile? Having these over our own territory could turn out to be a real problem!

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 8:42 pm 06/28/2012

    I’ve never heard of a better application for an encrypted communications link!

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  3. 3. schopenhauer1962 8:31 am 06/29/2012

    If someone can hack the FBI and the CIA, it must seem possible that someone will hack one o these drones … an accident waiting to happen … soon or sooner ?

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