GPS Hijacking: Team of U.S. Faculty, Students Take Control of Drone

Faculty and students at the University of Texas at Austin have proven that a sophisticated surveillance drone can be hacked mid-flight via its GPS. The same could be done with virtually any type of drone, or even with a commercial airliner.

Drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), are used both domestically -- particularly along our southern border -- and by the military and the CIA abroad, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Last week, a small team of faculty and students was able to take control of a Department of Homeland Security drone by “spoofing” its GPS. They did what the Iranians appear to have done last December when they gained control over a U.S. Air Force RQ-170 stealth UAV and landed it in Kashmar, Iran. The Iranians then put the RQ-170 aircraft, with a damaged underside and repaired wing, on display. It seems that the Iranian pilot/operators were less than familiar with the airplane’s flight envelope and landing procedures than the UTA group, but still they managed to take control of it and to get it down on the ground relatively intact.

On May 9, a Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100 slammed into Mount Salak in Indonesia, killing all 45 people on board. The plane, a demonstration version of the Superjet series, was on a promotion tour, carrying journalists and VIPs for a planned 30-minute flight. Alexander Yablonstev, an experienced pilot, was said to be familiar with local terrain. According to Travel Daily News, the air traffic control tower (ATC) did not realize that the plane was missing until at least 20 minutes after the crash. Recordings show that a flight request made by pilot Yablonstev was neither acknowledged nor answered by the ATC.

While the Indonesian and Russian governments have drawn no official conclusions, Russian media is promoting the idea that the Superjet 100 was brought down by “electronic jamming” by Americans at the Indonesian airport. It is, they opine, a case of Western “industrial espionage.” Komsolskaya Pravda, once the voice of the Communist youth movement and now Russia’s top tabloid, quoted an unnamed general of the GRU (Russian military intelligence) on the subject and reinforced the “theory” with comments from Sukhoi officials.

Realistically, it is hard to argue that the Superjet posed a competitive threat to the United States. There is only one American commercial aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, and it helped Sukhoi with the Superjet design. More likely, Sukhoi feared its first venture in commercial aviation would collapse if a flaw in the aircraft caused the crash.