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Uh-oh. Hackers might really be able to control planes using in-flight Wi-Fi

Uh-oh. Hackers might really be able to control planes using in-flight Wi-Fi
Photo courtesy of shutterstock

Last month, I told you about a security researcher who was taken off of a United Airlines flight after tweeting a message about hacking into the aircraft's computer systems. Now the FBI claims that the man, Chris Roberts of One World Labs, did a lot more than just tweet a joke about airline hacking.

According to an FBI search warrant, Roberts told the FBI that he had hacked into in-flight entertainment centers on Boeing 737s, 757s and Airbus A-320 aircraft "15 to 20 times." Now this is where the story gets weird. The document also claims that during one of those flights, Roberts tapped into an airliner's computerized engine control systems, and commanded one engine to "climb."

“He stated that he thereby caused one of the airplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights,” FBI Special Agent Mark Hurley wrote in an application for a judge to grant the search warrant.

Here's a little background. If you've ever been in a row boat or a canoe, you probably know that if you paddle on just one side of the boat, it will turn in the opposite direction that you are paddling. To move the boat straight, you must paddle evenly on both sides. The same is true on a twin-engine aircraft. If one engine produces more power than the other, that unbalanced difference will try to make the airplane turn toward the side with the weaker engine.

So if indeed Roberts was able to trick one of the engines to produce more power as if to climb, the result would be what pilots call a "yaw" as the airplane turns. However, the aircraft's autopilot would normally be programmed to follow a specific path and would presumably counter the change in engine power to maintain the intended direction. In fact, pilots are required to frequently practice flying straight with just one engine to be prepared in case one engine fails.

Next page: How the FBI claims he tapped into the plane's computers
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