July 01, 2012

How a team of students HIJACKED a drone in midair - all for a $1,000 bet with U.S. government

One thousand dollars may not seem like a lot of money, but it was enough for a team of researchers from a Texas college to hack into and hijack a drone on a dare from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The scientists led by Professor Todd Humphreys from the University of Texas at Austin Radionavigation Laboratory managed to take control of a small but powerful drone in midair through a technique called spoofing, where a signal from hackers imitates the one sent to the drone’s on-board GPS.

The hostile takeover of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) owned by the college was done before the weary eyes of DHS officials.

During the experiment conducted at the University of Texas stadium, the small red drone soared into the sky following a clear set of commands entered into its computer.

Shortly after, the aircraft suddenly veered to the side, making it obvious that it was no longer following its original orders. Then, the drone hurtled toward the ground as if given a self-destruct command and was saved in the last moment.

Humphreys told Fox News that for a few hundreds dollars, his team was able to build the most sophisticated spoofing system yet that tricked the drone into following a new set of commands.

‘Spoofing a GPS receiver on a UAV is just another way of hijacking a plane,’ Humphreys said.

The stadium display was not the first time government officials witnessed spoofing in action.

Last Tuesday, officials from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Homeland Security watched as Humphreys' team repeatedly hijacked a drone from a remote hilltop in the desert of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The implications of the experiments are both far-reaching and unsettling since the government is currently considering plans that will allow local law enforcement agencies and other groups to employ scores of drones in U.S. airspace.

Even private companies like FedEx have expressed interest in building a fleet of unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes.

‘In five or ten years you have 30,000 drones in the airspace,’ Humphreys told Fox News. ‘Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us.’

It is expected that by 2020, there will be tens of thousands of drones circling overhead if the FAA approves domestic use.

What’s more, unlike military unmanned aircraft, civilian drones are likely to use the same unencrypted GPS signals that the University of Texas team had successfully hacked, making it possible for anyone with $1,000 and a plan to turn a harmless FedEx UAV into a missile and crash it into a building.

That’s the same mentality the 9/11 attackers had,’ Humphreys said.

DHS has been playing catch-up with the rapidly changing GPS interference technology through its new Patriot Watch and Patriot Shield programs, but the effort is woefully underfunded and mostly geared toward finding people using jammers, not the more sophisticated spoofers.

It is believed that a U.S. drone was brought down in Iran last December when someone jammed its GPS system.

Drones have been widely used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen to take out terror suspects. Domestically, the use of UAVs has been limited to southern border patrols.

In February, the U.S. Congress ordered the FAA to lay the groundwork for the expansion of the drone program beyond military uses by 2015, allowing power companies, police departments and major corporations to launch drones in U.S. airspace.

Humphreys warned that it is crucial that the government address this grave security concern before it goes any further with plans that would allow drones to fly over American soil.


  1. More govt waste. Funny how these Repubs cry about tax money being spent but when it comes to buying toys that flying around in circles, they keeping their mouth shut on that one.

    Billions wasted by DHS.

    1. It's also real funny about how clueless Americans are not to demand that their be an actual reason to deploy such a system of espionage on its own citizens. This is the hallmark of a totalitarian state. As if another is needed? what strikes me is how dumb America is to allow this fascism to take place without a whimper. A few throwback to the 60's OWS last year destined to fail and that's it? How LAME!!!!!!

  2. These college kids are fools!
    The feds obviously just wanted to see how it could be hacked to safeguard it in the future.
    Do NOT help these A-holes in enslaving us!

  3. Why does a college own an unmanned aerial vehicle?


    1. They can be bought quite cheaply from public sites on the internet. GPS spoofers too!

      Might be fun at the London Olympics this time.