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UT Professor Hacks Drone's GPS System


A University of Texas professor recently hacked into the GPS system of a drone. He was able to take control of the unmanned aircraft using less than $1,000 worth of equipment. Era Sundar reports on what this means for the future use of drones in the United States and how this could affect national security.

Let’s say you’re hungry and you’ve craving a meal from your favorite restaurant. But instead of a delivery car pulling up to the curb, an unmanned drone lands at your front door. It could happen. Professor Todd Humphreys of the Radio Navigation Department at U-T Austin thinks so.
"I’m a big proponent of these drones," Humphreys said. "I’ve got in mind the Chipotle Copter that helps to bring Chipotle burritos to my door step or here to my office. And so I’d like to see these economic potentials realized here in our national air space. But I think we ought to do it cautiously.”
Humphreys emphasizes caution because he and a group of his students were able to hack into a drone and take it over about two weeks ago. But unlike the mayhem created by the cyber group called "Anonymous," this take over operation was done at the invitation of the Department of Homeland Security. The agency wanted to see just how secure the GPS system used by drones is. But it also declined to answer questions about the take-over exercise and the threat drones could pose to national security.

The drone that Humphreys hacked is not a military drone. So it’s not as secure. But there is concern about the safety of civilian drones.

“The reason we see this test as significant and important with vast implications," Humphreys said, "is that indeed there will be many civilian drones plying our airspace over the next five, ten years.”

Humphreys sees a future where civilian drones will perform tasks ranging from mail carrying to law enforcement. Civil rights activists have expressed privacy concerns about the possible civilian use of drones. The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the operation of drones in U.S. airspace. A spokesman for the FAA declined to speak on tape, but told KUT it is not yet possible to apply for licenses to operate commercial drones. So you'll have to wait a while longer to get a burrito delivered by drone.

In Austin, I’m Era Sundar.