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Tackling the GPS signal jamming problem for driverless cars

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A rigorous method of testing how susceptible driverless vehicles are to GPS spoofing has been created by Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in Texas.

GPS is a key technology in driverless vehicles as it allows them to calculate their positioning, navigation and timing.

Concerns have been raised that bad actors could use hardware to jam the signals or spoof one of the satellites, which could send the vehicle off course.

Testing for GPS vulnerabilities in a mobile environment had previously been difficult because federal law in the US prohibits over-the-air re-transmission of GPS signals without prior authorisation.

SWRI’s spoofing test system places a physical component on or in line with a vehicle’s GPS antenna and a ground station that remotely controls the GPS signal.

The system receives the actual GPS signal from an on-vehicle antenna, processes it and inserts a spoofed signal, then broadcasts the spoofed signal to the GPS receiver on the vehicle. This gives the spoofing system full control over a GPS receiver.

In this way, SWRI managed to develop a test that can be used by automotive manufacturers to test the reliability of their driverless systems without triggering the ire of federal regulators.

“This is a legal way for us to improve the cyber resilience of autonomous vehicles by demonstrating a transmission of spoofed or manipulated GPS signals to allow for analysis of system responses,” said Victor Murray, head of SWRI’s Cyber Physical Systems Group.

While testing the system on an automated vehicle on a test track, engineers were able to alter the vehicle’s course by 10 metres, effectively causing it to drive off the road. The vehicle could also be forced to turn early or late.

“Most automated vehicles will not rely solely on GPS because they use a combination of sensors such as lidar, camera machine vision, GPS and other tools,” Murray said.

“However, GPS is a basis for positioning in a lot of systems, so it is important for manufacturers to have the ability to design technology to address vulnerabilities.”

The new system was developed through SWRI’s internal research program. Future related research will explore the role of GPS spoofing in drones and aircraft.

Last month, researchers at the University of Illinois developed a way to combat malicious signal jamming by using a system comprised of a sensor, encoder and decoder to determine when false signals are being broadcast. 

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