It’s Not Just the Airport: GPS Jamming Is Affecting People All Over Israel

Israeli farmers and professional drone operators complain of GPS disruptions to critical systems as jamming increases across the Middle East

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An agriculture drone sprays plant protection agent over a vineyard
An agriculture drone sprays plant protection agent over a vineyardCredit: Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

While Israel is at the global center of GPS blocking and disruption, as reported in a recent Haaretz article, the issue rarely made the headlines before – even though it dramatically affects thousands of Israelis. For many professionals, such as farmers and drone operators, the disruptions to the Global Positioning System satellite navigation system could very well cost them days of work, damage equipment worth tens of thousands of shekels or even put human lives at risk.

“The GPS supplies three types of services – time, navigation and location – and the disruptions affect every one of them,” according to Kobi Menashe. Menashe, the head of market guidance in the National Cyber Directorate, has worked directly in handling cyber threats in the electromagnetic sphere. “Most consumers need time services – such as IT systems that use GPS to synchronize their computers with their server. Waze and similar apps are used for navigation and other apps, such as ticketing service on the train or parking payment apps, use location services.”

As a technology, GPS has transformed over a few decades from something bordering on science fiction to a critical and easy-to-use necessity that has become almost invisible to us on a daily basis – until something goes wrong.

We are accustomed to the term "GPS" even though it only applies to the U.S. satellite system, which is just one of a number of global navigation satellite systems. Others in operation include the Russian GLONASS system, China’s BeiDou and the European Union’s Galileo system, the latter of which is now under construction. “There are about 100 satellites, more or less, circling the Earth all the time,” says Omer Sharar, the CEO and founder of infiniDome, which develops technology to protect GPS systems from jamming.

A recent Haaretz report revealed that the skies over the Middle East, including those above Israel, are a global hot spot for GPS jamming – and although it was thought that Russian military systems in Syria were the cause of these disruptions, it is possible that Israeli systems contribute as well. According to the Eurocontrol air traffic authority, it is likely that the disruptions are the result of a system to thwart drone attacks.

In response to a query as to whether Israel jams GPS systems to prevent attacks from Iranian drones, the military said it “acts in a number of dimensions... on all fronts” and that “there are many other groups in the region that act... to defend themselves, along with Israel.”

All too easy

The disruptions can be roughly divided into two types. The simpler one, the equivalent of a denial-of-service attack on the internet, prevents the GPS receiver from functioning at all. The more sophisticated attack is called spoofing, in which the attackers feed the GPS receiver with false data and cause it to do whatever they want.

Conversations with experts in the field show how easy it is to disrupt GPS reception. “You need to understand that the strength of the satellite signal is very, very weak,” says Sharar. “It’s like turning on a 20-watt light bulb in Berlin that’s received in Israel.” If someone broadcasts a stronger signal on the right frequency, every GPS-based device in the area of the transmitter will be jammed.

Such devices are sold online at prices ranging between tens and hundreds of dollars. Some are the size of a standard thumb drive. “I was shocked how easily I bought this tool, which I had delivered to a kiosk near my house,” says Sharar.

When it’s easy, the jamming does not have to come only from Syria or military tests. “The disturbances happen all the time because of both military and civilian operations. A taxi driver who wants to trick [taxi app] Gett so they don’t know where he is, or a truck driver who wants to deviate from his planned route to run personal errands, can activate a GPS jammer, and if they pass by a port or agricultural area with this jammer – it will do great damage there.”

Matanya Taussig, a photographer and owner of an aerial photography company, recently experienced this for himself. “When jamming is happening, there is almost no way to know where it comes from and why,” he says. “Two weeks ago, I was photographing near the marina in Herzliya, and during the flight the drone lost reception from the satellites twice. I lost contact with the drone for a moment. I have no idea what caused that and I don’t really have a way to check. In such cases, everything depends on the experience of the operator, their composure, and the level of prior planning. As always, you also need a lot of luck.”

“Almost everyone who flies drones professionally has experienced this,” Amir Terkel, from the aerial photography company SkyVideo, says. “You have an indication that the drone is connected and communicating with 20 or more satellites, and it goes down to zero in a second. The drone doesn’t know how to keep its place in the sky and it starts to be blown in the wind. You have to fly it back manually to the point of takeoff. It can take a few minutes, or a long time.”

Drones are outfitted with advanced safety systems based on cameras and other sensors. But these systems also depend on satellite navigation, and when control is lost, the costly equipment is not the only thing at risk – so are the environment and people, because incidents like this can end in a crash, Terkel explains.

No solutions on the horizon

Farmers are being hit particularly hard by the problem, as the Israeli economic daily Calcalist reported two years ago. “During the last decade, agriculture has become more precise in order to save work and manpower,” the National Cyber Directorate’s Menashe says. “For example, field crops, whose cultivation requires location services to the precision of a few centimeters. The moment the GPS is disrupted, work stops, so it hurts them in particular.”

Menashe is referring to GPS-based automatic tractors and irrigation systems, as well as crop dusters, Sharar, InfiniDome’s CEO, says. “The planes date from about World War II, but their crop-dusting systems are state of the art. When we catch interference from Gaza or Syria, and lots of times from Israel, the first places to shout that they’re hurt are precision agriculture. It really kills their apps.”

A GPS drone monitoring a field in China.Credit: Imagine China

Sharar, who now works mainly with defense markets, says he gets many phone calls from a farmers’ association, but that he can’t help them. “When we founded the company, we wanted to provide technology that would allow the operation of automated vehicles,” he says. “And then in the context of COVID, the regulators and the manufacturers slowed down. Then we realized that right now, the defense world – and particularly critical uses in the realm of flying craft – that’s the place that’s hurting most today.”

InfiniDome’s technology is based on an algorithm known as "Null Steering" which operates on a principle that brings to mind noise-canceling earphones. The system identifies the source of the interference, precisely because it’s a particularly loud signal, and creates a special pattern of reception that lowers the interference and allows the GPS receivers to connect to an automatic signal. “One of the biggest potential clients that we’ve started to work with is the U.S. military,” says Sharar. “It has a fleet of 230,000 Humvees. There are also other military applications, like the Israeli army’s digital ground forces, that are entirely designed around GPS systems.”

The problem is that the solution is intended for security clients, and Sharar, like most of those interviewed for this article, concedes that there are no ready solutions. “The existing solutions are very, very military-esque, [devices] — about the size of an old video cassette, which begin at $20,000 up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, geared at protecting combat planes and helicopters,” he says. “We are the first to provide a small, easy solution that’s significantly cheaper than the others, that is beginning to be relevant in the civilian world, but the road is still long. There is currently no [civilian] tool that can protect against GPS interference.”

Menashe, however, says he’s sure something can be done, from increasing awareness to developing solutions: “There are solutions for everything, and we’re trying to talk to the Agriculture Ministry in order to help the farmers, even with partial funding.” But Menashe also says it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Drones in the shadows

GPS interference makes the headlines when it involves passenger aircraft at Ben-Gurion International Airport, but the professional use of drones remains in the shadows. Drones are used commercially for photography, surveying, mapping, monitoring critical infrastructure and agriculture.

“You have to understand that the gaps between professional and hobbyist operators can be huge,” Avi Arish, CEO of Rachaf Pro Drone, an aerial photography company. Amateur drones can cost from 3,000 to 4,000 shekels ($880 to $1,170), but some of the professional drones I work with can cost 30,000 shekels – and much more if it’s equipment like a crop-dusting drone.”

Coordination is the critical point here: Everyone who spoke with Haaretz said that coordinating drone flights sometimes involves a large number of entities, such as the Civil Aviation Authority, the air force, the airports; and if the army is involved, there sometimes needs to be coordination between various units – and even that doesn’t ensure that the operations will end without interference.

According to Taussig, the photographer, he has flown a drone in the area of Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv when he knew his clients had already coordinated the flight with all the relevant agencies. “But suddenly I lost reception from all the satellites and the drone drifted,” he says. “In this case, I knew there was a security issue and it was a problem of coordination, and I called the headquarters and they said they had done it. They opened the lock and allowed me to continue working.”

Yarkon Park, as seen from a droneCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

But even coordination with all relevant agencies doesn’t mean the flight will go smoothly, especially in sensitive security areas like the Golan Heights or the Gaza border. According to people Haaretz spoke to for this article, the Civil Aviation Authority’s flight intelligence warnings are not always precise. “Sometimes you get two or three warnings a month, but in fact interference is happening all the time,” says Arish, who lives in Kibbutz Alumot near Lake Kinneret and frequently works in that area.

According to Arish, the problem is particularly bad during mapping projects. “When there’s sudden interference, for amateurs it just means a point disappears on the map and they don’t know what to do,” he says. “We know what to do, and how to work under this interference, but it’s relevant only for things like photography. If we are in the middle of mapping, it doesn’t matter if you’re the drone champion of the world – if you don’t have satellites, your workday was wasted. You get up in the morning, take out equipment that costs a lot of money; plan, coordinate with the army and the authorities, drive two or three hours, and then you get to the field, turn on the drone, and that’s that. Your day was wasted.”

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