Planes were built to trust GPS signals. Jamming and spoofing in the Middle East and Ukraine have diverted flights and caused inaccurate onboard alerts.
Electronic warfare in the Middle East and Ukraine is affecting air travel far from the battlefields, unnerving pilots and exposing an unintended consequence of a tactic that experts say will become more common.
Planes are losing satellite signals, flights have been diverted and pilots have received false location reports or inaccurate warnings that they were flying close to terrain, according to European Union safety regulators and an internal airline memo viewed by The New York Times. The Federal Aviation Administration has also warned pilots about GPS jamming in the Middle East.
Radio frequency interference — intended to disrupt the satellite signals used by rockets, drones and other weaponry — spiked after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 and has grown even more intense this fall in the Middle East. The interference can involve jamming satellite signals by drowning them out with noise, or spoofing them — mimicking real satellite signals to trick recipients with misleading information.
The radio interference has so far not proven to be dangerous. But aircraft systems have proved largely unable to detect GPS spoofing and correct for it, according to Opsgroup, an organization that monitors changes and risks in the aviation industry. One Embraer jet bound for Dubai nearly veered into Iranian airspace in September before the pilots figured out the plane was chasing a false signal.
“We only realized there was an issue because the autopilot started turning to the left and right, so it was obvious that something was wrong,” crew members reported to Opsgroup.
Airplanes can typically fly safely without satellite signals, and large commercial aircraft have at least six alternative navigation systems, pilots said. Business jets such as Dassault Falcons, Gulfstreams and Bombardiers appear to be more susceptible to signal spoofing, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said.
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