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Civilian Drones At Risk For Hacking

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Commercial drones expected to fly U.S. skies in coming years, delivering pizza or monitoring power lines, would be dangerously vulnerable to hackers without a variety of potentially costly countermeasures to their GPS navigation systems, results of a federal study indicate. According to an exclusive report in the Christian Science Monitor, a serious, but not well recognized, threat lies in drone vulnerabilities to hackers seeking to commandeer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by “spoofing,” or faking, GPS satellite navigation signals using cheap GPS transmitting equipment. Such spoofing, when directed at a drone, could make it crash, drone experts say. “Hacking commercial drones is a serious concern,” says Dennis Gormley, senior lecturer at Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. “There are plenty of people who argue we’re not doing enough, even with respect to securing our more sensitive and costly military drones. So, yes, I’m concerned about the civilian side of things.”

An overview of the study, obtained by the Monitor, lists major vulnerabilities that affect UAVs – as well as newly identified countermeasures to defeat attackers, an expert who has seen the overview says. “GNSS receivers are susceptible to intentional interference and spoofing,” according to the overview report, which was delivered by an FAA expert at an international conference in New Zealand in April. “Inexpensive, and readily available, GNSS repeaters and GNSS simulation tools can transmit hazardously misleading information ‘spoofing’ GNSS use.” But the federal research team has apparently advanced the investigation by identifying and investigating no less than eight “intentional interference & spoofing threat scenarios,” including four “interference” (GPS signal jamming) scenarios and four signal-spoofing scenarios, the study overview indicates. The team also found “numerous technical, operational, and legal mitigations” to limit some of those threats.  However, none of the security fixes are likely to come cheap – a major issue if the cost of drones is to be kept down to compete with drone-makers in other countries, experts say. Testing on UAV systems to improve safety could delay their arrival in U.S. skies beyond 2015, many say.

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