UT Researchers Successfully Hack GPS of A $80M Superyacht in the Mediterranean; Sends Vessel off Course


Using a custom-made Global Positioning System (GPS) device, the University of Texas (UT) researchers successfully de-routed an $80M, 213-foot super-yacht off its programmed course.

"People have come to trust their electronic chart displays," said Todd Humphreys, team leader and assistant professor at UT's Cockrell School of Engineering. "These electronic chart displays get their information from civilian GPS signals - which are not encrypted. The signals have a detailed structure, but they don't have defenses against counterfeiting. As a result, "the concept of GPS spoofing has been known for maybe 20 years."

"The device we've got is the size of a large laptop or a small brief case," Humphreys said. "To build the box took a team of three to four PhDs ... but it wouldn't take a PhD to operate it."

Describing the mechanism of the device, the team said that it generates fake GPS signals that gradually overpower the legitimate signals until it takes control of a navigation system.

"We mimicked the entire GPS constellation," said Humphreys, a researcher at the university's department of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics. "We had a counterpart for each signal coming down from every satellite in the sky. When they mixed together with legitimate signals in the receiver, ours were slightly stronger.

"Unlike GPS signal blocking or jamming, spoofing triggers no alarms on the ship's navigation equipment."

Once the false signals are in control, the navigation system sends out fake alarms alerting that the vessel is slowly drifting off its course. When the crew begins a course correction that is when the vessel will be steered off its original plotline, fooling the crew into believing that the yacht is heading perfectly on course.

The test was conducted July off the coast of Italy.

"The ship actually turned and we could all feel it, but the chart display and the crew only saw a straight line," Humphreys said.

Humphreys said that an intelligent crew could easily identify such ploys that attempts to trick a vessel's navigation system. However, there are not many options that could help crack the spoofing ploy.

"Celestial navigation through a sextant would be their only option as far as I know," Humphreys said.

However, many of them are unfamiliar with traditional navigation tools such as a sextant.

Humphreys said that the new spoofing method could pose a major threat.

 "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," Humphreys said. "I didn't know, until we performed this experiment, just how possible it is to spoof a marine vessel and how difficult it is to detect this attack."

"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."

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