Iran Hacked GPS Signals To Capture U.S. Drone

Exploit of well-known bug in drone's software made it think it was landing at an American airfield, not 140 miles inside Iran.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

December 16, 2011

3 Min Read

Iran recently captured a CIA batwing stealth drone by spoofing the GPS signals it received, fooling the drone into thinking it was landing at its home base.

The Christian Science Monitor, broke that news Thursday, after interviewing an Iranian engineer who's been reviewing the systems of the captured RQ-170 Sentinel drone, which was downed by Iranian forces on December 4 near Kashmar, which is about 140 miles inside northeast Iran.

"The GPS navigation is the weakest point," the engineer told the Monitor. Indeed, numerous researchers have warned that GPS signals are relatively easy to spoof, given that the related signal broadcast by satellites is relatively weak. Accordingly, the Iranians focused on spoofing the GPS data being received by the drone.

[ A nationwide broadband network is at risk due to GPS interference. See Lightsquared Disrupts Airplane Navigation GPS, Feds Say. ]

To make the drone rely only on GPS, however, first the Iranians jammed the remote-control communications channel used to guide the drone from its control center. "By putting noise [jamming] on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain," said the engineer. Notably, it's also much easier than trying to crack the encrypted remote-control communications channel.

With the drone relying solely on GPS to determine its latitude, longitude, altitude, and velocity, the Iranians then broadcast carefully spoofed GPS coordinates, which allowed the drone to land at what it believed was its home base. In reality, it landed well inside Iranian borders. The altitude of the spoofed location was slightly different, however, which ended up denting the drone's underbelly, as can be seen in video footage released by Iran.

Tuesday, the Obama administration appealed to Iran to return the drone, but voiced doubts that the country would comply with that request. At least one semi-official Iranian news agency also appeared to dismiss the request. Furthermore, the Swiss ambassador to Iran--who handles American interests with Iran--was summoned by Iranian officials on Thursday to account for "America's violation of the country's airspace with a spy drone," reported

U.S. officials have said the drone, which was under the control of the CIA, was conducting reconnaissance of sites that might be used for nuclear energy or weapons production. In a press conference this week, U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta said that "important intelligence operations" such as the drone program would continue.

According to the Iranian engineer that spoke with the Monitor, Iran's takedown of a U.S. drone didn't occur overnight. Rather, its engineers have been studying drones since 2007, and especially since 2009, which is when the RQ-170 first deployed in Afghanistan. They also reverse-engineered the systems of two less-advanced drones that had been downed inside Iran in recent years, looking for exploitable vulnerabilities.

The revelations over Iran's GPS jamming capabilities mean that the country could be able to divert any GPS-guided missiles launched at targets inside its borders.

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About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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