Aircraft could be vulnerable to cyber attacks that disrupt radio signals used during landing, according to a white paper published this week.
Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston have outlined ways that hackers could hijack Instrumental Landing Systems (ILS), which are crucial during descent and landing.
The low-cost hack could raise serious concerns over the security of ILS, which has been used for decades and still remains in use at airports around the world.
Using a software defined radio (SDR), researchers were able to replicate signals sent from the ground and fool navigation tools into believing an aircraft is veering off-course. Researchers said that standard protocol for pilots in such a situation would be to adjust the aircraft’s rate of descent – which could lead to disaster.
One particular method that could be employed would falsely indicate that an aircraft’s angle of descent is lesser than it actually is. In this scenario, it could lead to a “fly down” signal being issued to the aircraft instructing the pilot to increase its descent and, in turn, cause the aircraft to plummet into the ground before reaching the designated runway.
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In a video detailing their research, the US-based team commented: “Modern aircraft rely on several wireless technologies for communications, control, and navigation. Researchers demonstrated vulnerabilities in many aviation systems.
“However, the resilience of the aircraft landing systems to adversarial wireless attacks have not yet been studied in the open literature, despite their criticality and the increasing availability of low-cost software-defined radio (SDR) platforms.”
Researchers concluded that simulations and experiments using ILS receivers and flight simulators showed that an attacker could “precisely control the approach path of an aircraft without alerting the pilots”, particularly in low-visibility conditions where pilots rely on instruments.
“We discussed potential countermeasures including failsafe systems such as GPS and showed that these systems do not provide sufficient security guarantees and there are unique challenges to realising a scalable and secure aircraft landing system,” the team added.
While the team from Northwestern emphasised the potentially disastrous effects of an attack such as this, they did consult with security experts and pilots during their research.
In most cases, experts noted, this kind of ‘spoofing’ is unlikely to cause an aircraft to crash and ILS malfunctions are a well-known threat to aviation safety. Pilots receive extensive training on how to react and compensate for such an event and in good conditions, such as a clear day, a pilot will be able to deal with a misaligned plane.
This style of attack, they also noted, would be extremely difficult for logistical reasons. As well as using an SDR, a potential hacker would require additional equipment such as directional antennas and signal amplifiers to successfully carry out an attack.
From the ground, this would require someone to be within adequate proximity to an airport and align gear with a runway – all without raising the suspicions of authorities. Similarly, were an attack to be launched from onboard a plane, a would-be hacker may have difficulty sneaking this equipment onboard.