HAMNET Report 3rd December 2023

Commercial air crews are reporting something “unthinkable” in the skies above the Middle East.

Brian Jacobs, ZS6YZ, our Deputy National Hamnet Director drew my attention to an article by Matthew Gault in vice.com, which notes that novel “spoofing” attacks have caused navigation systems to fail in dozens of incidents since September. 

In late September, multiple commercial flights near Iran went astray after navigation systems went blind. The planes first received spoofed GPS signals, meaning signals designed to fool planes’ systems into thinking they are flying miles away from their real location. One of the aircraft almost flew into Iranian airspace without permission. Since then, air crews discussing the problem online have said it’s only gotten worse, and experts are racing to establish who is behind it.

OPSGROUP, an international group of pilots and flight technicians, sounded the alarm about the incidents in September and began to collect data to share with its members and the public. According to OPSGROUP, multiple commercial aircraft in the Middle Eastern region have lost the ability to navigate after receiving spoofed navigation signals for months. And it’s not just GPS — fall-back navigation systems are also corrupted, resulting in total failure.

According to OPSGROUP, the activity is centred in three regions: Baghdad, Cairo, and Tel Aviv. They have tracked more than 50 incidents in the last five weeks, the group said in a November update, and identified three new and distinct kinds of navigation spoofing incidents, with two arising since the initial reports in September. 

While GPS spoofing is not new, the specific vector of these new attacks was previously “unthinkable,” according to OPSGROUP, which described them as exposing a “fundamental flaw in avionics design.” The spoofing corrupts the Inertial Reference System, a piece of equipment often described as the “brain” of an aircraft that uses gyroscopes, accelerometers, and other tech to help planes navigate. One expert Motherboard spoke to said this was “highly significant.” 

“This immediately sounds unthinkable,” OPSGROUP said in its public post about the incidents. “The IRS (Inertial Reference System) should be a standalone system, unable to be spoofed. The idea that we could lose all on-board nav capability, and have to ask [air traffic control] for our position and request a heading, makes little sense at first glance— especially for state of the art aircraft with the latest avionics. However, multiple reports confirm that this has happened.”

Thanks for the interesting, if worrying, report, Brian.

Danie ZS1OSS, of HAMNET Western Cape has reported on the latest City of Cape Town/Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant disaster exercise which was held last Thursday the 29th at the Disaster Risk Management Centre in Goodwood. He notes that HAMNET is always present as an observer, noting how things pan out, learning where the communications weakness might be, and ready to provide amateur radio ideas to aid communications during the exercise, or in a real disaster. Danie was joined by Ian ZS1BR as HAMNET representatives, monitoring the “action” and the associated communications. It turned out not to be necessary to activate our radio room upstairs in the building during the exercise. Thanks for the report, Danie.

Writing in Science News, Jake Beuhler says that nesting chinstrap penguins take nodding off to the extreme. The birds briefly dip into a slumber many thousands of times per day, sleeping for only seconds at a time. 

The penguins’ breeding colonies are noisy and stressful places, and threats from predatory birds and aggressive neighbouring penguins are unrelenting. The extremely disjointed sleep schedule may help the penguins to protect their young while still getting enough shut-eye, researchers report in the Dec. 1 Science

The findings add to evidence “that avian sleep can be very different from the sleep of land mammals,” says UCLA neuroscientist Jerome Siegel

Nearly a decade ago, behavioural ecologist Won Young Lee of the Korea Polar Research Institute in Incheon noticed something peculiar about how chinstrap penguins nesting on Antarctica’s King George Island were sleeping. They would seemingly doze off for very short periods of time in their cacophonous colonies. Then in 2018, Lee learned about frigate birds’ ability to steal sleep while airborne on days-long flights. 

Lee teamed up with sleep ecophysiologist Paul-Antoine Libourel of the Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre in France and other researchers to investigate the penguins’ sleep. In 2019, the team studied the daily sleep patterns of 14 nesting chinstrap penguins using data loggers mounted on the birds’ backs. The devices had electrodes surgically implanted into the penguins’ brains for measuring brain activity. Other instruments on the data loggers recorded the animals’ movements and location.

Nesting chinstrap penguins grab seconds of sleep at a time, perhaps so they can stay alert enough to defend chicks and eggs from predators, and to ward off aggressive neighbour penguins. Nesting penguins had incredibly fragmented sleep patterns, taking over 600 “microsleeps” an hour, and each averaging only four seconds, the researchers found. At times, the penguins slept with only half of their brain; the other half stayed awake. Altogether, the oodles of snoozes added up, providing over 11 hours of sleep for each brain hemisphere across more than 10,000 brief sleeps each day. 

Some marine mammals and other types of birds have strange or restricted sleep patterns too, often when staying alert is important. Dolphins can sleep with half their brain at a time, letting them remain vigilant for over two weeks straight. To stay wary of predators, mallard ducks can sleep with one half of their brain at a time too, and elephant seals dramatically reduce their sleeping hours while out at sea. But the sheer number of microsleeps seen in chinstrap penguins is unprecedented among animals, Lee says.

“It seems that the penguins do not have any time where they decrease their vigilance,” Libourel says. “just a slight increase of microsleep-bout length around noon.”

The sleep pattern may help the penguins balance the brain’s need for rest with the demands of nesting. Predatory birds like brown skuas patrol penguin colonies looking to plunder undefended eggs and chicks. “Penguin parents should be vigilant all the time during breeding to keep their offspring safe,” Lee says. There’s also constant commotion and noise in the colony disrupting sleep. Such extremely interrupted sleep may reflect the penguins’ flexibility in handling the stressors of raising chicks.

The many micronaps did appear to be at least partially restorative to their brains, since the studied penguins were able to function well enough both to survive and successfully raise their chicks. It’s unclear if the penguins’ sleep pattern changes after the breeding season.

“Sleep seems to be very diverse and flexible among species,” Lee says. “I believe that there are still many things unrevealed about animal sleep. By studying their sleep behaviour, we can understand how animals have evolved to achieve brain restoration.”

Hmm – 10000 micronaps a day, he says. I think my sleep pattern during interminable Varsity lectures was much the same!

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.