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How college students hijacked a government spy drone

How college students hijacked a government spy drone

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Using about $1,000 worth of equipment, researchers were able to "spoof" a GPS receiver to take control of an unmanned aircraft.

A heated controversy is about to get even more controversial after a group of college students figured out a way to hack a government surveillance drone.

The experiment, carried out by a University of Texas team in conjunction with the Department of Homeland security, used a method called GPS-spoofing. Using about $1,000 worth of equipment, the researchers were able to "spoof" a GPS receiver, send false signals and take control of the unmanned aircraft. To highlight just how dangerous a hijacked aircraft can be, they nearly steered it into the ground before a safety pilot with a radio control intervened to prevent the drone from crashing.

The security of UAV technology has been a concern since military officials discovered a computer virus had infected systems used to control Predator and Reaper drones. Such fears were heightened when Iran was able to capture the U.S. military's most advanced reconnaissance aircraft, a RQ-170 Sentinal last December. It's believed that the hackers brought down the drone by jamming GPS navigational signals.

GPS spoofing, however, takes the threat to more sophisticated and dangerous level since a hijacked drone can be manipulated to carry out attacks or to steal gathered intelligence. It's kind of like the robot version of being possessed or mind control.

While UAVs, such the predator, have proven to be gamechangers in the field of espionage and war on terror, they're also been shown to be potential safety and legal liability. On one hand, they've been credited with taking out high-profile terrorist leaders such as second ranking Al-Qaeda member Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and their American-born operations chief Anwar al-Awlaki. On the homeland front, there have even been cases where police departments have enlisted their help to carry out investigations and arrests.

However, much of the worry centers around instances when the technology falls in the wrong hands. Five months after Iran had the Sentinel in their possession, news emerged that the Iranian government had figured out a way to copy the technology. And with the FAA recently deciding to open American airspace to commercial and government-operated drones within three years, the possibility of "re-possession" has become cause for even greater concern.

"I'm worried about them crashing into other planes," Professor Todd Humphreys, who lead the hacker team, told Fox News. "I'm worried about them crashing into buildings. We could get collisions in the air and there could be loss of life, so we want to prevent this and get out in front of the problem."

In the meantime, the department of homeland security is working to fix some of the gaping holes in security and experiments like this will help to expose and patch up problems before a truly bad incident happens.

Image: Flickr/California National Guard

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure