Mint Primer: GPS spoofing: how flights are being led astray

Under GNSS interference, also called GPS spoofing, hackers attempt to manipulate a user’s navigation system by sending counterfeit signals to a receiver antenna.
Under GNSS interference, also called GPS spoofing, hackers attempt to manipulate a user’s navigation system by sending counterfeit signals to a receiver antenna.

Summary

  • A Dubai-bound business jet from Europe flew into Iranian airspace with no clearance in September—due to a false signal on the aircraft navigation system

A Dubai-bound business jet from Europe flew into Iranian airspace with no clearance in September—due to a false signal on the aircraft navigation system. After about 20 planes faced similar issues, the Indian aviation regulator issued an advisory last week. Mint explains:

What is at the heart of the problem?

It has to do with interference with the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), a key technology used for navigation and communication. GNSS refers to a constellation of satellites providing signals that transmit positioning and timing data to GNSS receivers. These signals, however, can be vulnerable to interference due to their weak transmitting power. Under GNSS interference, also called GPS spoofing, hackers attempt to manipulate a user’s navigation system by sending counterfeit signals to a receiver antenna. Such interference can severely impact the accuracy of the GPS-using device.

Where has it been reported from?

According to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), GPS spoofing has risen since 2022 with increase in sophistication. So far, GPS spoofing in aviation has mainly been seen in areas around conflict zones but is also prevalent in the south and eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, Baltic Sea, and Arctic area. It has caused greater concern after about 20 business jets and commercial flights, including wide-body aircraft, reported GPS spoofing near the Iran-Iraq border in September. In fact, a business jet was reported to have ventured into Iranian airspace without clearance.

Where has it been reported from?

According to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), GPS spoofing has risen since 2022 with increase in sophistication. So far, GPS spoofing in aviation has mainly been seen in areas around conflict zones but is also prevalent in the south and eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, Baltic Sea, and Arctic area. It has caused greater concern after about 20 business jets and commercial flights, including wide-body aircraft, reported GPS spoofing near the Iran-Iraq border in September. In fact, a business jet was reported to have ventured into Iranian airspace without clearance.

What are the implications for an aircraft?

GPS spoofing provides false signals to the GPS receiver of a plane, manipulating its inertial reference system. This can put the aircraft off its intended course and result in intrusion or collision. A GNSS interference can also result in false data for a plane’s fuel computation system, flight management system, and ground or wind speed information on the navigation display.

Is there a solution to this problem?

There is no clear solution yet for the kind of spoofing seen in the past few months, but aircraft makers and technology providers are working on it. The source of the interference has been around West Asia but the perpetrators are unknown. For now, the solution could be better training for pilots. In fact, global aviation regulatory bodies have advised airlines to train their crew on GPS spoofing, and discuss the possible alternatives to conventional arrival-and-approach procedures during flight planning.

What is India doing about it?

After forming a committee on GPS spoofing in October, the Indian civil aviation regulator issued an advisory to Indian airlines on 24 November. It has provided a mechanism for air navigation service providers to establish a threat monitoring and analysis network in coordination with the regulator for preventive as well as reactive threat monitoring. It also wants reports of GNSS interference to be analyzed so as to develop a robust and immediate threat response capability to a spoofing incident.

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