Hacking into a domestic drone at the request of the government

A U.S. Marine operated Raven surveillance drone prepares to land outside a Marine base on March 21, 2009 near the remote village of Baqwa, Afghanistan after flying a mission.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, are being used more and more by the U.S. military overseas. The planes, flown with no human pilot on board, appear to be headed for more widespread use domestically as well.

There may be a problem, however. Todd Humphreys teaches aeronautical engineering at the University of Texas. He and his students were able to hack into a drone and take control of it, using a technique called spoofing. Says Humphreys, "We built a device here in our laboratory and it receives GPS signals and then generates false ones that are perfectly aligned with the regular ones, the real ones, and shooting off toward a drone that's flying in mid-air, and the drone pulls in the authentic signals and the false ones, but pretty soon the false ones are more powerful, and they begin to have the greater influence on the drone's stated location."

Todd isn't about to get arrested for doing this. It was all carefully planned.

Humphreys: This was a drone owned by the University of Texas, it's a civilian drone, it's not a government drone, but it's sophisticated in the sense that it has the same avionics package and sensors that the much larger drones have. And, we did a first test here on campus, in fact, they moved football practice so we could get the stadium.

Moe: That's a big deal.

Humphreys: That's right. University football here is a big deal, so they gave us the stadium. We did an attack there just as a dress rehearsal for the next week when we were invited by the Department of Homeland Security down to White Sands to carry out the attack under their noses.

Moe: Why did the DHS want you to do this?

Humphreys: You know, they're looking forward to 2015 when the FAA is supposed to have drawn up rules to invite unmanned aerial vehicles into our national air space. We’re going to have civilian drones in our airspace, and of course, they're concerned about the security of that premise, and so they'd like to look into any kind of vulnerabilities. This is definitely vulnerability, so they'd like to patch this before 2015 comes around.

Humphreys is an aeronautical engineering professor, but he says you don't necessarily need to have his resume in order to pull something like this off. "There's a new paradigm in radio equipment nowadays. It's called software-defined radio, and it means that somebody who's just good at programming can end up being an expert in radio, too. And, the device we have created is a software-defined device, so we just code things up in software and stuff it in our device. On one day, it can be a regular GPS receiver, on the next day it can be a spoofer. I believe that that's a game changer. It means that people without deep technical expertise in radio could potentially gin up a device like ours."

Homeland Security is reviewing Humphreys’ research, which is a good idea.

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And in the Robot Roundup, robots are beating humans at Rock Paper Scissors!

Or should I say robots are cheaters! A robot at the University of Tokyo plays against humans and has a built-in camera. It reads what the human's about to throw down and responds accordingly.

Paper beats rock. Robot beats human. Human can deactivate robot, though.

Robots can tell you the specials. A restaurant in China has robots greeting diners, taking orders, and bringing out food. The robots reportedly have the intelligence of a 4-year-old, although I question how effective the average preschooler would be in getting an order straight.

And robots are working retail. Carnegie Mellon University has built AndyBot for use in stores. Armed with a Kinect sensor and imaging software, it can restock items while showing you a map of where everything is in the store. Still working on getting the robot to take a smoke break by the loading dock.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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