Students hijack US$80m yacht with GPS spoofing

Students from the University of Texas created a custom GPS spoofing device that allowed them to take over a superyacht's navigation system, changing its course.

The White Rose of Drachs.
(Credit: University of Texas)

In a project designed to discover just how easy it is to remotely hijack a yacht, a research team at the University of Texas designed a custom GPS device that allowed them to successfully take over the navigation equipment of a US$80 million superyacht off the coast of Italy last month.

The team, led by assistant professor Todd Humphreys of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the Cockrell School of Engineering, used what it is calling "the world's first openly acknowledged GPS spoofing device" to override the GPS signal received by superyacht the White Rose of Drachs (volunteered for the experiment) to steer the boat off course.

Two students aboard the yacht used the device to broadcast a faint ensemble of civil GPS signals toward the White Rose's two GPS antennas. These overpowered the authentic signals received from satellites until the students obtained control of the ship's system. Since the ship could not distinguish between the real signals and the false, this did not trigger any of the navigation equipment's alarms.

Once in, the team tricked the ship's navigation system into showing that it was a few degrees off course, alerting the crew to correct it. Little by little, the yacht was moved into a parallel course several hundred metres from where it should have been — and all the while, the display showed a straight course, even though there was physical evidence that the boat had turned.

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

The aim of the experiment was to highlight just how vulnerable ships and other equipment can be to navigation attacks. Last year, Humphreys and his team successfully spoofed a drone, steering it off course several times, leading to Humphreys having to testify before US Congress.

"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. "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."

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