“Our modern society has a special relationship to GPS. We’re almost blindly reliant on it,” Todd Humphreys says in his TEDxTalk. “It’s built deeply into our systems and infrastructure. Some call it the invisible utility.”
As GPS becomes more and more pervasive, technology is being developed to counter it — sometimes to restore privacy, but other times to mislead. One of these technologies, called “GPS spoofing,” is troubling enough that, on July 19, Humphreys will testify before the US Congress about its potential.
GPS spoofing, as its name suggests, is designed to fake out GPS signals. By spoofing a GPS signal, ships and planes could be sent off course without the pilots or control towers even realizing it.
This June, in a test organized by the US Department of Homeland Security, Humphreys and a group of his students from the University of Texas at Austin tried repeatedly to hack the GPS of a flying drone, attempting to steer it off course from about a kilometer away, using a GPS spoofing device that cost about $1,000.
And it worked.
While the drone appeared on the GPS screen to be flying up, it was actually headed down toward the ground. It nearly crashed.
But why is this important right now? Because the US Federal Aviation Administration is planning to allow drones — both commercial and military — in U.S. airspace by 2015.
As Humphreys told the UT engineering blog, “We’re raising the flag early on in this process, so there is ample opportunity to improve the security of civilian drones from these attacks.”