Hot Science Cool Talks: Drones, Myths, Hacks, and the Future

MAISHA RUMMAN Dr. Todd Humphreys of the UT Radionavigation Laboratory addressed the topic of drones, their present uses, and their future applications at the Environmental Science Institute's Hot Science Cool Talk event in the Fall 2014 semester. 

Dr. Humphreys of the UT Radionavigation Laboratory

What are Drones?

Drones are unmanned flying vehicles that come in all shapes and sizes, and some are as small as a coin. They can fly in any direction and can be purchased from Amazon.

Drone technology has existed since the early 1900s, but three key technological advances have enabled drones to become what they are today. The first — the lithium ion battery — is compact, cheap and has twice the energy density of alkaline and lithium batteries. Secondly, consistent with Moore’s law, compact objects have more computational power. The last key element is GPS (global positioning system), which was developed around 2000 and allows the drone to track its location.

What is the “official” name of a Drone?

According to Dr. Humphreys, the appropriate term is an "unmanned aerial vehicle" (UAV for short) or "remotely piloted aircraft" when talking to a supplier. However, if it can fly without a human at the control (no human controller in the air or on the ground), the proper name to use would be an "autonomous aircraft".

Legislation concerning Drones

According to Federal Aviation Administration’s statutes, bigger drones and normal air crafts must fly above 500 feet, and model air crafts should fly below 400 feet.  Further advice from Dr. Humphreys on flying drones include: don’t fly near airports, don’t fly for hire, and don’t take pictures of people without their consent. In particular, Texas law forbids taking pictures of others' property without prior permission.

What can you do with drones?

UT_drone-660x495Dr. Humphrey's favorite use of drones includes taking pictures from vantage points such as the inside of a volcano, otherwise impossible without a drone. Drones also allow scientists  to do three dimensional aerial mapping. Although Dr. Humphreys forgot the third use of a drone, right at that moment, a drone conveniently flew in to give him a message: “delivery by drone.”

Hacking a Drone

In 2011, the US Military lost a drone in Iran. The drone's whereabouts were unknown until the Iranians revealed they had the drone. The US military thought this was impossible, as they believed the drone had gone down in a pile of rubble. Soon, the Iranians showed that they had the drone on state television; they successfully hacked the drone using an electric attack against the drone’s GPS, called a “spoofing” attack.

Drones have vital links: a link to the ground operator, links to GPS satellites, as well as links to other air crafts. To take over the drone, one must take over these links. While Dr. Humphreys was unsure if hacking the drone using these links was possible, several years ago Dr. Humphreys asked the same question about GPS signals. He and his students built a GPS spoofing device and received permission from the Department of Homeland Security to take down a drone using their device. After testing the device at White Sands and successfully taking down a drone, Dr. Humphreys and his students proved that a drone really could be hacked. Currently, he and his students are working on patching the holes in GPS.

Do drones like to play sports?

Recently, Dr. Humphreys and his students used the football field and the drones to play ping pong. Two drones as paddles and one drone as a puck simulated the game. Humphreys speculates that in the future, they could even be used as a spectator sport.

Hot Science Cool Talks

1781324_919127578098768_4862321209030414754_oThe Environmental Science Institute's Hot Science Cool Talks at the UT campus features leading scientists every semester. The talk is free and open to the public and endeavors to educate the K-12 community by exposing students to world renowned scientists and their current research projects. Before every talk, ESI puts on an interactive fair with educational displays centered on the talk by UT students and other UT organizations and departments.

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