HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (KRQE) - Last month, some college students were challenged by the Department of Homeland Security to try to hack into a drone flying over White Sands.
They did it. So what does that mean for security especially in the military?
Air Force officials offered some answers and a rare inside look at their remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) training program at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.
It's a military asset becoming more common: the aircraft flies while its pilot stays grounded.
"The big tool, and the big asset that these bring into the fight, is we can help keep the guys on the ground safe," explained Tech Sgt. Jay, RPA sensor operator at Holloman. "We can help protect them."
RPAs like the Air Force's MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper are manned from a ground-control station by a pilot and sensor operator.
Holloman is the primary training base for these in the Air Force. Close to 95 percent of RPA crews are in the United States, while their aircraft could be flying in another country.
Most people in those crews have gone through training at Holloman.
But aside from the military, technological advances have paved the way for potential domestic use of drones, which may raise safety concerns.
A University of Texas professor and his students were challenged to hack into a civilian drone as it flew over White Sands in June. They were successful.
"You can think of this as hijacking a plane from a distance," UT professor Todd Humphreys said. "You are as if you're at the controls of the plane because you've now captured the autopilot's sense of its own navigation.
"And you can manipulate it left or right, up or down."
But military officials say their systems are secure and could not be easily hacked into.
"You've got a human in the loop that can see if there's something wrong with the system, and then we can take the appropriate action from there," said Maj. Jason, RPA instructor pilot at Holloman. "We've got contingencies in place for if something like that happens."
"Everything that we do is secure in operating these drones, and so military classifications and everything have been put in place to protect the equipment," added Tech Sgt. Jay.
Currently the domestic use of drones is limited to a few test operations with local law enforcement agencies.
The FAA is currently drafting regulations for the widespread domestic use of drones. In a few years, thousands of these unmanned aerial vehicles could be buzzing around America's skies.
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