College researchers hack government drone with $1,000 GPS spoofer

predator drone

While most college students are busy screwing around on Facebook and testing the limits of their livers, a group of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin were busy doing something far more impressive: hacking into a government-owned unmanned drone.

This feat was accomplished by Professor Todd Humphreys and his team at the Radionavigation Laboratory with just $1,000 in equipment. According to Fox News, the frightening experiment puts into question the wisdom of the U.S. government’s plan to open America’s airspace to civilian- and government-operated drones.

The team used a GPS “spoofer,” which enables users to take control of unencrypted GPS systems, like the one used to guide the drone on which they tested their hack. This, says Humphreys, is a very serious problem.

“In five or 10 years you have 30,000 drones in the airspace,” he told Fox News. “Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us.”

That’s a bit more scaremonger-y than we like here at Digital Trends, but it doesn’t make this any less true. While building drones is already an increasingly popular hobby for technology geeks, these autonomous flying toys are only the tip of the ice berg. Starting in 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration will begin allowing commercial entities to fly their own drones, and law enforcement authorities could soon use them for patrolling their jurisdictions.

Military drones, like the one pictured above, do used encrypted GPS systems. However, Iran was able to bring down a U.S. spy drone last December using a technique similar to the one applied by Humphreys and his team.

The increased number of drones (or UAVs, as they’re often called) will only make the danger of someone taking over a drone for nefarious purposes only more likely, if problems with unencrypted GPS systems aren’t fixed. Fortunately, the FAA and the Department of Homeland Security are already looking into this problem, thanks in part to Humphreys and his team. Unfortunately, however, reports indicate that most commercial and private drones will not used encrypted GPS when they begin taking flight in a few years.