Drone "hijackings" in U.S. raise security concerns

(CBS News) The use of drones is taking off in America.

Local governments and private businesses see them as a cheap and effective way of maintaining an eye from the sky.

But will the drones be fully under their control?

A college professor and his students say not necessarily.

A civilian drone aircraft was "hijacked" by Prof. Todd Humphreys and his graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin.

They were able to hack into the drone's GPS signals.

Later, in an exercise done in conjuneciton with the Department of Homeland Security at White Sands, New Mexico, they were even able to make the drone land.

Humphreys told CBS News, "You can think of this as hijacking a plane from a distance. (It's) as if you're at the controls of the plane, because you've now captured the autopilot's sense of its own navigation solution. And you can manipulate it left or right, up or down."

The "hijackings" would seem to raise concerns about vulnerabilities in our domestic use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles.

"I see this as causing trouble in the skies," Humphreys said. "I wouldn't want to be living under skies where this was that easy to do."

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No longer a tool used strictly by the military to take out terrorists overseas, drones of all shapes and sizes will soon be in our skies here at home for surveillance missions by local police departments, energy companies looking to build pipelines, and farmers looking to feed thirsty crops.

Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, remarked unmanned systems are a game-changing technology. He said, "They're a technology that (could) prove to be a huge new industry. They're also a technology that is raising deep, deep political, legal, and ethical questions."

With so many drones destined for U.S. skies, and very little regulation, some observers have encouraged the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with safety standards for the 10,000 drones that could populate U.S. airspace by 2017.

Humphreys said, "What I'm hoping is that people will take it seriously enough that we can have it all tidied up by the time we open the barn doors and let in the drones."

Humphreys does caution it's unlikely military drones, such as the Predator, could be taken over by civilians or foreign enemies due to their sophisticated security systems, even though, just last December, Iran claimed it hacked into the flight controls of an unmanned aircraft and brought it down..

In a statement to CBS News, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said, "The unmanned aircraft used for the test are a different class and type than what (Customs and Border Protection) operates," adding, " ... This test does not have any bearing on our Predators' security."

As a result of the exercise, Humphreys has been invited to testify before a congressional panel later this month. He'll be recommending steps to prevent hacking into unmanned aerial vehicles in the future.

For more on this story, watch CBS News special correspondent Jeff Glor's full report in the video above.

  • Jeff Glor

    Jeff Glor was named anchor of the Sunday edition of the "CBS Evening News" in January 2012 and Special Correspondent for "CBS This Morning" in November 2011.

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