A team of university students have demonstrated that it is possible to subvert global positioning system navigation signals to pilot a superyacht without tripping alarms.
The experiment was conducted in June this year, with the permission of the owners of a 65-metre (213ft) superyacht worth US$80 million (A$87 million), the White Rose that sailed from Monaco to the island of Rhodes in the Mediterranean.
A team of mechanics students from the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin were on board the White Rose, with the experiment taking place some 50 kilometres off the coast of Italy in international waters.
Faint GPS signals were broadcast by the students from a spoofing device the size of a briefcase, aimed at the positioning system aerials of the ship. The authentic GPS signals were slowly overpowered by those transmitted from the spoofing device, after which the students had gained control over the yacht's navigational system.
Once in control, the students were able to shift the ship onto a new course, three degrees off the original one. As the navigational system reported location discrepancies and the crew initiated corrections, the White Rose deviated further from its original course.
Although the electronic chart on the bridge of the White Rose showed that the ship was progressing along a straight line, crew and the students could see in its wake that there was a pronounced curve and the vessel had in fact turned.
Professor Todd Humphreys of Cockrell's department of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics who led the experiment said:
“The ship actually turned and we could all feel it, but the chart display and the crew saw only a straight line.”
Animation showing how the GPS spoofing of the yacht's navigation system took place.
There was no alarms triggered on the yacht from the spoofing, unlike when GPS signals are blocked or jammed. To the ship's navigation system, the false signals from the spoofing device were indistinguishable to real ones and eventually, caused the yacht to move in a parallel track hundred metres along it s original course.
Humphreys says that until the experiment was performed, he did not know that it was possible to spoof the navigation system of a marine vessel, or how difficult it was to detect such an attack.
“With 90 per cent 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.
“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,” he concluded.