How airlines can navigate GPS spoofing

Numerous incidents involving GPS spoofing, jamming or even failure of navigation systems have been recorded, particularly by planes flying over Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Lebanon as well as the Black Sea region.

Image: Stuart Bailey

Several airlines have witnessed "spoofing" attacks during the past months. This hacking method disorients GPS devices sending erroneous signals to pilots. Many of them have reported failures of their GPS and even of their navigation system when flying over the Middle East and Northern Europe.

According to experts “if a GPS position signal is faked, most aircraft are incapable of detecting the ruse. For many, it has lead to total navigation failure. For others, it has led to subtle and undetected erroneous tracking”.

In the worst cases, this has led to a complete loss of on-board navigation requiring ATC vectors, failure of inertial reference system (IRS - the navigational nerve centre), and unnoticed off-track navigation towards danger areas and hostile airspace.

Airlines, civil aviation and regulatory authorities are keeping a close eye on this growing phenomenon.

The UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) issued a safety alert last October after it noticed that “potential GPS spoofing activities were experimented by various air operators in the North of Middle East region”, adding that “these events may cause complete loss of navigational capability”.

The GCAA recommended all UAE air operators to ensure that flight crews promptly report any interruption, degradation or anomalous performance of GPS, assess operational risks and limitations linked to the loss of on-board GPS signal, and use alternate navigation systems when flying in or near the affected areas.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) held a joint workshop hosted at EASA’s headquarters to combat incidents of GNSS spoofing and jamming, last January.

“GNSS systems offer tremendous advantages to aviation in increasing the safety of operations in a busy shared airspace,” said EASA acting” executive director Luc Tytgat. “But we have seen a sharp rise in attacks on these systems, which poses a safety risk. EASA is tackling the risk specific to these new technologies.

“We immediately need to ensure that pilots and crews can identify the risks and know how to react and land safely. In the medium term, we will need to adapt the certification requirements of the navigation and landing systems. For the longer term, we need to ensure we are involved in the design of future satellite navigation systems. Countering this risk is a priority for the Agency.”

EASA will inform the relevant stakeholders (airlines, air navigation service providers (ANSPs), manufacturing industry and airports) about attacks.

According to Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, “airlines are seeing a significant rise in incidents of GNSS interference. To counter this, we need coordinated collection and sharing of GNSS safety data; universal procedural GNSS incident guidance from aircraft manufacturers; a commitment from states to retain traditional navigation systems as backup in cases where GNSS are spoofed or jammed”.

He underlined that airlines will be critical partners. “And whatever actions are taken, they must be the focal point of the solution as they are the front line facing the risk.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) points to another possibility, that of the ongoing electronic warfare, particularly in Ukraine and more recently in Israel. By disrupting GPS signals to, for example, neutralise enemy drones, belligerents can unknowingly disrupt the navigation tools of commercial flights.

This has garnered attention on the fragility of GPS signals.

“Emirates operates a fleet of modern aircraft which are equipped with multiple highly-accurate navigation systems and do not rely exclusively on GPS.

“Our pilots undergo comprehensive training, and our flight operations protocols are regularly reviewed to ensure they reflect all the latest safety requirements and industry best practices. We actively engage with regulators, aircraft manufacturers, and industry bodies to address any potential operational safety risks. The safety of our passengers and crew is always our number one priority”, an Emirates spokesperson said.

These disruptions pose significant challenges to the broader spectrum of industries which rely on precise geolocation services, including aviation. Such attacks belong to the domain of cybersecurity, a safety threat for which EASA has developed a toolkit. The National Aviation Authorities (NAAs) in Europe had explicitly tasked EASA with taking measures to counter this risk.

Anuradha Deenapanray

Anuradha Deenapanray

Anuradha is a francophone editor for African and Arabian Aerospace magazines.