Researchers at the University of Texas managed to steer a 213-foot yacht off course, by deceiving the vessel with false GPS signals, raising concern over the security of GPS.

Yacht Project Researchers from University of Texas misdirect superyacht by spoofing GPS

A project carried out by researchers at the University of Texas in Austin  has raised concern over the security of GPS devices, and more specifically, their susceptibility to fake signals that could be used to turn semi-automated vehicles completely off their courses.

Using a box no larger than a briefcase, assistant professor Todd Humphreys and his team were able to misdirect a 213-foot long yacht hundreds of meters off of its intended course by sending fake signals to the vessel’s two GPS antennae. By slowly overpowering real GPS signals with false ones, the device was able to make the vessel’s navigation system believe it was going a few degrees off course. In response to this deception, the onboard crew changed direction of the ship, which is when the true misdirection took place.

Humphreys summarized his concerns, stating, “With 90 percent of the world’s freight moving across the seas and a great deal of the world’s human transportation going across the skies, we have to gain a better understanding of the broader implications of GPS spoofing.”

Humphrey’s project was a surprising indicator of these implications.

Because a real map had been replaced with a false one, it was now possible to make the crew steer the ship in a totally wrong direction, by deceiving them slowly.

The wake of the ship revealed that its line was not, as the GPS reported, straight, but this could easily be missed by an inattentive crew, not alert to the possibilities of GPS spoofing.

“The surprising ease with which Todd and his team were able to control a (multimillion) dollar yacht is evidence that we must invest much more in securing our transportation systems against potential spoofing,” said Jahshan Bhatt, a graduate student who aided in the false broadcasts.

This isn’t the first time that Humphreys has demonstrated the insecurities of GPS – last year, he and a group of students employed a similar device to deceive and capture an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

The reason that such deceptions are possible is simply due to the fact that GPS signals are not encrypted. And, while other GPS attacks such as blocking and jamming can be detected by navigation systems, there isn’t any way to tell false signals from the real ones.

“This experiment is applicable to other semi-autonomous vehicles, such as aircraft, which are now operated, in part, by autopilot systems,” Humphreys said. “We’ve got to put on our thinking caps and see what we can do to solve this threat quickly.”

Source: University of Texas at Austin