Can drones be hacked?

UT Professor says GPS hacking could crash drones in Texas, U.S.

HOUSTON - Unmanned remote aircraft are being used by police and other groups across the skies of Texas. But a professor at the University of Texas says he could bring one of those drones down by simply using his brain.

"It's a hacking attack," says Dr. Todd Humphreys, a UT engineering professor.

Drones look like mini-helicopters or even model planes. They're flown from the ground using laptops and what look like video game controllers. Drones have been tested by the Houston Police Department. They're currently being used by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office and are also being considered for all kinds of commercial use in Texas and across the U.S.

However, Humphreys says many drones have a large gap when it comes to security.

"We got concerned that there wasn't an appreciation for the vulnerability of the navigational systems that these drones have to civil GPS spoofing," Humphreys said. 

That's "engineer-talk" for no one was ready for someone to hack into a drone, mess with the GPS signal, and take the drone off course. So, Humphreys and his students set out to expose the gap. They documented the hacking during a demonstration in Austin. Student hackers were able to manipulate the GPS system of a drone while operators were flying it.

"We were making it go left and right, up and down, front and back," Humphreys said. "It's all done by messing with it's sense of position."

The group demonstrated it again in White Sands, New Mexico. This time, they manipulated a drone with Department of Homeland Security officials watching.

"Our contact at DHS was happy that we pulled it off and was glad we were going to shed some light on an important issue," said Humphreys. "The danger to security is of course, if we could do it, someone else could do it. If a police drone is flying around and so doing some routine monitoring and so forth, it could be brought down."

That was one drone with one group of hackers. The forecast is that in 2020, up to 30,000 civilian and law enforcement drones will share the nation's skies with airliners and helicopters. Are drones ready for some sort of hacking invasion?

"The sky is not falling," said Gene Robinson, owner and operator of RP Flight Systems in Wimberly, Texas. "At this point in time, we don't see the hacking situation being something we have to worry about today."

Robinson not only builds and sells sophisticated small drones, he operates them during large fires and searches for missing persons. He's worked on missing person cases nationwide, including searches with Texas EquuSearch. Detailed photos and video from his drone have helped recover 10 victims.

"They (drones) can save lives," Robinson said. "It's a very important tool."

Robinson says many smaller drones can use GPS technology for navigation, but the drones also rely on pilots who have constant view of the drone and could take control during a hacking attack. He believes the hacking threat is being overplayed.

"Can a normal person grab some stuff out of Radio Shack and do it? Maybe," said Robinson. "To be on the absolute safe side, the industry is taking measures to try and prevent that sort of thing from happening. It could be a concern if we don't take measures. We are taking measures. We just have to be vigilant and, like any technology, we need to make sure we stay on top of things."

Officials with the U.S. Border Patrol told Local 2 Investigates that drones patrolling the Texas-Mexico line use military-type encryption to protect them from hacking by drug cartels or anyone else. However, Humphreys says drones used by local police could still be at risk for hacking.

"We better not have to wait three or four years before we have a solution to this problem," said Humphreys. "Because in three or four years, we've opened up the skies to the drones and now they could be brought down by a targeted attack."

Lawmakers, including U.S. Reps. Ted Poe and Michael McCaul, will be in Houston Thursday for a forum about drones. The forum at Rice University will look at privacy and security concerns for drones used in the U.S.

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