(NaturalNews) Most Americans can conjure up images of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when terrorists hijacked jetliners and used them as guided, fuel-laden missiles to cause the most casualties.
Now, imagine those scenarios being played out on a smaller, but more frequent, scale, all across the country. It's possible, if a change in U.S. policy regarding domestic airspace goes through.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin recently demonstrated what they regard as a gargantuan hole in the government's plans to open the skies to drone surveillance. In a staged exhibition at Austin Stadium, professor Todd Humphreys and his team of researchers showed how drones can be successfully hijacked by terrorist operatives and turned into weapons.
"Spoofing a GPS receiver on a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) is just another way of hijacking a plane," Humphreys told Fox News.
That means anyone with the right equipment can intercept the signal which guides the drone and make it do what they want it to do.
Up to now, the report said, the biggest concern regarding drone flight has been GPS jammers, which are readily available online. They are used for a number of things, such as hiding the improper use of a company fleet vehicle that is tracked by GPS, for example.
Previous reports have also said that Iran may have intercepted a U.S. military drone inside its territory near the border with Afghanistan in December 2011.
But "spoofing" drone signals are a newer concern in the older world of GPS navigation. So much so that researchers like Humphreys are sounding the alarm.
Jammers can create problems for GPS systems by interfering with the signal, but spoofing, on the other hand, is a major step forward in technology. That's because spoofers are able to change navigational coordinates by inserting false information that looks real to the drone.
30,000 guided missiles?
Humphrey's device, which he called the most advanced spoofer ever built, is capable of infiltrating a drone's GPS system with a signal much more powerful than the one guiding it from a satellite far above the earth.
It works like this: Initially, his device sends a signal that matches the signal already being used to guide the drone, so it doesn't suspect anything is wrong. Next, he "attacks," per se, by sending his own commands. And viola, the drone is his.
It's a serious situation, he says.
"In five or ten years you have 30,000 drones in the airspace," he told Fox News. "Each one of these could be a potential missile used against us."
Imagine an enemy being able to seize control of tens of thousands of potential cruise missiles. He could strike anytime, anywhere - and with little-to-no warning.
It's not so far-fetched. Consider that NaturalNews' own founder and editor, Mike Adams, suggested this exact scenario recently in an interview with technology expert David Chalk.
Drones, so far, have mostly been used to hunt extremists and terrorists overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. But increasingly, civilian and federal law enforcement agencies have been buying and deploying drones of varying sizes throughout the country.
What's more, many of these - especially those operated by federal agencies like the Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Border Patrol, are operating the same models the military is using overseas; the only difference is, of course, the domestic versions are unarmed.
Morever, those particular drones are large. The Predator B drone, for example, which is becoming more popular with federal and police agencies, is as large as a small fighter jet.
Privacy is another concern, but...
The popularity of drones has risen dramatically in the past few years - so much so that in February, Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with new rules to allow commercial use of drones over the U.S. by 2015.
Eventually, scores of drones operated by local police departments to keep an electronic eye on American cities; by power companies to monitor transmission lines; oil companies to monitor pipelines; mailing companies to deliver packages (Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, says he wants to add unmanned drones to his fleet as soon as he can).
But besides the threat posed by spoofing, millions of Americans are increasingly worried drones will be used to create (or enhance) a surveillance society, in which privacy is at a premium, despite being constitutionally protected (for the record, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has launched a preemptive strike of his own against domestic drone use by proposing legislation requiring police to first obtain a warrant before using a drone for surveillance.
Humphrey's experiment, however, reveals a potentially more dire problem involving drones.
"What if you could take down one of these drones delivering FedEx packages and use that as your missile? That's the same mentality the 9-11 attackers had," Humphreys said.
The government is aware of the problem. Humphreys has given FAA and Department of Homeland Security similar demonstrations; he's taken control of their drones as well, using his high-tech spoofer.
"I'm worried about them crashing into other planes," he said, according to Fox News. "I'm worried about them crashing into buildings. We could get collisions in the air and there could be loss of life, so we want to prevent this and get out in front of the problem."