Picture this: you're watching a small surveillance drone flying over Austin as part of a routine mission, following a series of GPS waypoints programmed into its flight computer. You blink. The drone is suddenly heading eastward from its intended flight path, makes a hard turn southward, and then soon starts hurtling towards the ground. You hold your breath while a safety pilot saves the expensive vehicle from crashing and obliterating itself.
As the aerial industry pushes for the adoption of GPS-guided unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, commonly known as a drones), many are worrying about their security. Professor Todd Humphreys and his team at the University of Texas at Austin's Radionavigation Laboratory have shown that there is indeed cause for concern.
Humphreys recently demonstrated just how easy it is for anyone (with the right equipment) to take control of a drone and do their bidding. His team even managed to land a hijacked drone.
"You can think of this as hijacking a plane from a distance," Humphreys told CBS News. "(It's) as if you're at the controls of the plane, because you've now captured the autopilot's sense of its own navigation solution. And you can manipulate it left or right, up or down. I see this as causing trouble in the skies. I wouldn't want to be living under skies where this was that easy to do."
In February 2012, Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to come up with safety standards to allow government and commercial use of UAVs over American soil by 2015. The near future could very well include UAVs watching U.S. cities and their citizens, monitoring various assets for businesses, and whatever else the private and public sectors deem worthy of drone work. Is three years enough to work out all the kinks?
Humphreys has been invited to testify before a congressional panel later this month and recommend steps to prevent the hacking and hijacking of UAVs. Thousands of drones are destined for U.S. skies in the coming years; some estimate up to 10,000 by 2017.
As with any new technology, especially one which moves us away from human control and towards computers control, it's important to be diligent. The pros of automatically-controlled drones are obvious: it's a cheap and effective way of maintaining an eye from the sky. The cons become clear when you lose control: I'm sure your imagination can fill in the gaps.
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