Center for Strategic Communication

The University of Texas Radionavigation Laboratory drone, an Adaptive Flight Hornet Mini. Photo: Courtesy Todd Humphreys

UPDATED 7/20/12, 11.30AM

On June 19, when University of Texas researchers successfully hijacked a drone by “spoofing” it — giving it bad GPS coordinates – they showed the Department of Homeland Security how civilian drones could fall into the wrong hands, exposing a potentially serious security flaw. It was exactly what Todd Humphreys, the lead researcher, anticipated in a TEDx talk in February: “You can scarcely imagine the kind of havoc you could cause if you knew what you were doing with a GPS spoofer.”

On Thursday, a month after the experiment, the investigations panel of the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on how civilian drones could affect the security of the American airspace. “These findings are alarming and have revealed a gaping hole in the security of using unmanned aerial systems domestically,” said Rep. Michael McCall, the panel’s chairman. “Now is the time to ensure these vulnerabilities are mitigated to protect our aviation system as the use of unmanned aerial systems continues to grow.”

Problem is, the FAA and the Department of Homeland security have yet to come up with specific requirements or a certified system to protect drones from GPS attacks. And what’s worse, neither of them takes responsibility for it. “The Department of Homeland Security mission is to protect the homeland. Unfortunately, DHS seems either disinterested or unprepared to step up to the plate,” said McCall, noting that representatives from the DHS declined to testify at the hearing. The FAA declined to comment on GPS security after the spoofing test.

Some of the drone manufacturers have their own systems to counter spoofing attacks, but others either think this is not their job, are not worried at all, or were completely taken by surprise.

“We’ve always been aware of [GPS threats like] jamming and lost satellites,” said Dennis D’Annunzio, Chief Technical Officer of drone maker Rotomotion, which produces drones used by local police like the North Little Rock Police Department in Arkansas. “But spoofing and taking control was something that we weren’t anticipating.”