Thursday, December 15, 2011

U.S. stealth drone captured by spoofing its GPS system: engineer

The United States RQ-170 Sentinel drone which Iran recently captured was guided to a safe landing inside Iran through the use of a flaw in the drone's navigational system. That assertion came from an Iranian engineer who is said to be working on the captured drone's systems.

Now, we could actually see this sort of thing as being possible. After all, in late 2009 it was noted that insurgents using $26 SkyGrabber software could intercept video streams from drone aircraft, because they were unencrypted. It wasn't the most secure back then, and we could believe it if this happened, because the military isn't the quickest to act (the video stream issue had been known since the 1990s)).

The Iranian engineer told the Christian Science Monitor that "The GPS navigation is the weakest point. By putting noise [jamming] on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain."

In other words, the drone thought it was in one place (its home base in Afghanistan) when it was actually in another (Iran). The hacking methodology used on the drone, the engineer said, was developed with the use of earlier downed drone aircraft.

At the same time, a separate source said that he believed the images of the drone that Iran says it captured showed a "fake" drone. A former Pentagon official, who requested anonymity as he is not authorized to speak about the drone, told the USA Today that video footage of the drone showed an aircraft that is not only the wrong color, but one that has also has welds along the wing joints that do not conform to the stealth design of the RQ-170 Sentinel.

He also questioned why the landing gear was obscured when displayed by the Iranian military in the video. However, the Iranian engineer speaking to the CSM explained that:

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"If you look at the location where we made it land and the bird's home base, they both have [almost] the same altitude. There was a problem [of a few meters] with the exact altitude so the bird's underbelly was damaged in landing; that's why it was covered in the broadcast footage."

Could Iran have done what it says it did? Western military experts and previously published studies indicate that GPS spoofing as described by the Iranian engineer is indeed possible. Former US Navy electronic warfare specialist Robert Densmore said, "Even modern combat-grade GPS [is] very susceptible” to manipulation. "I wouldn't say it's easy, but the technology is there."

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