Skip to content Skip to navigation

Cyber Safety for Transportation

We recognize that transportation is changing dramatically.

Soon, cars will drive while the enclosed humans snooze or send text messages. Trains will slow and speed, certain that they alone occupy the underlying track. Airborne drones will fly confidently between buildings to monitor air pollution and order in our cities. These innovations will make transportation safer and impose much less harm on our environment. However, this new world of movement will need to be protected from cyber hackers. These actors will ply their trades on the mobile transactions between these driverless vehicles rather than rack-bound computers. Together with Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Physics, we are pursuing a research effort aimed at blunting this danger to the future of transportation.

Today, pilots bound for Juneau, Alaska, follow the twisting Gastineau Channel above.

The capital city of Alaska lies at the end of this channel. On a clear day, our pilots enjoy the beautiful mountains in the Alaskan panhandle. On a dark and stormy night, they rely on failsafe satellite navigation to guide their aircraft down this forbidding fjord. Specifically, they rely on the navigation system to warn them within a few seconds if the location error may be larger than one hundred meters. They count on the residual risk to be lower than one approach per 10 million.

Tomorrow, automatic vehicles will descend from the air and populate our roadways (automatic driving assistance systems or ADAS), railways (positive train control, PTC) and waterways (ships without crews). Moreover, the sky will be filled with aircraft that carry no pilots to mitigate flight risk. These will be drones or unpiloted air vehicles (UAVs). For efficiency, cars will drive while the enclosed humans snooze or send text messages. Trains will slow and speed, certain that they alone occupy the underlying track. Drones will fly confidently between buildings to monitor air pollution and order in our major cites. All told, the benefits to safety and the environment will be great.

Future challenge

However, cyber hackers will now ply their trades on the mobile transactions between these new driverless vehicles rather than rack-bound computers. They will use jammers to deny vehicle guidance at the worst of times. They will use spoofers to misdirect the driving machines and eavesdropping to steal sensitive information. Navigation jammers are simple and already commonplace: They use strong radio signals to overwhelm (jam) the radio signals used for navigation and surveillance. Such attacks are not artful; they do not introduce misdirection, but simply deny the guidance service. In contrast, spoofers are complicated and dangerous. They replace the authentic navigation signals with counterfeit signals that misdirect the navigation system without detection.

Our goal

Cyber safety for transportation will not be provided with one stroke of the pen or keyboard. It will require legal elements to discourage jamming and spoofing. It will also require social protocols that broadcast the inappropriateness of such dangerous activities. Most importantly, it will require technical work to toughen the navigation receivers with new satellite signals, digital message authentication, intelligent antennas and inertial sensors. Safety against jammers and spoofers will also require us to augment current navigation with completely independent sources of time and location; perhaps these diverse sources will be placed in low-earth orbit or use terrestrial transmitters.

To this effect, our research effort for achieving cyber safety for transportation, led by the GPS Laboratory directed by Professor Per Enge, is multidisciplinary: It combines Aeronautics, Astronautics, Computer Science, Law, Biology, Electrical Engineering and Physics. Simply put, our research effort in this area combines these disciplines to blunt the cyber danger to the future of transportation, and to ensure that the sought-after gains in safety and efficiency are achieved.