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Attack of the drones – Emerging threats from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Attack of the drones – Emerging threats from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

March 22, 2017
Andrew Staniforth
Andrew Staniforth Non-Resident Fellow - Counter Terrorism & National Security

The proliferation of drone technology presents a new and unique suite of security challenges. Last year, rogue drone incursions forced the temporary closure of Dubai and Sharjah International airports. The shutdowns were serious events, costing hundreds of millions of dirhams per hour, disrupting dozens of flights and inconveniencing thousands of passengers.

With passenger safety remaining the number one priority to airport authorities, closing airspace when there is suspected unauthorised drone activity is essential. Despite counter measures in place to strictly prohibit drone activity in restricted areas, and the clear and present danger posed to aircraft from potential drone-strikes, reports of rogue drone activity at airports continue to occur with alarming regularity.

In the UK, reports of disturbances to flight paths around Birmingham, Stansted and Luton airports have been recorded. In addition, Elstree Aerodrome Air Traffic Control noted that a drone had been seen by a pilot whose aircraft was flying at 6,000ft, and a drone at Manchester airport was reported as flying less than 15 metres from a commercial Boeing 757.  The misuse of drones at airports represents just one aspect of the new and emerging threat from small, commercially available Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

Organised crime

UAVs have opened a world of exciting possibilities for photographers and videographers who can now capture stunning aerial images at low cost. But the proliferation of drone technology poses a series of risks to individuals, businesses and Government institutions.  There is a clear risk to private industry from drone espionage and sabotage, with the potential for drones to be used to steal intellectual property, damage infrastructure or gather sensitive data about business operations.

The illegal use of UAVs is a pressing concern to Law Enforcement Agencies across the world as criminals adopt drone technology, and seek increasingly creative and sophisticated ways in which to commit crime. As a direct result of the criminal use of UAVs, UK police officers are having to investigate a fourfold rise in the number of crime reports involving drones purchased online or direct from stores. These investigations have included allegations that drones are being used by paedophiles hovering over children’s playgrounds and burglars scoping out people’s properties.  One remarkable incident recorded by the Police Service of Northern Ireland last year revealed a drone allegedly being used to film an Automated Teller Machine (ATM) as people entered their private security pin codes to withdraw cash from their bank accounts.  Organised criminal gangs have also utilised small drones to deliver drugs and mobile phones to inmates in UK prisons.

The range of criminal activity being committed by UAVs provides evidence of their technical capabilities. The latest drones, quad-copters and multi-rotor helicopters already come equipped with 360 degree 4K video cameras, more than twice the quality of HD, and are currently cheap to buy without any registration, permit or approved pilot training in many jurisdictions. Speeds range as high as 70 mph for mass produced drones, with potential altitudes up to 10,000 feet, and many also offer image transmission to a handheld device, such as a smart mobile phone, and others even include night vision facilities. While the threat landscape from UAVs is diverse, the greatest concern amongst the international security community is the use of drone technology by terrorist organisations.

Drone strikes

According to the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the United States Military Academy at West Point, terrorist groups like Daesh are looking for new ways to employ drone technology that could one day deliver chemical weapons or unleash similar catastrophes.  The CTC report highlights that at least four terrorist groups, mainly based in the Middle East, have programs studying how to leverage more resources and infrastructure for producing drones.

The threat posed by the use of drones has already materialized in the theatre of conflict. Daesh first used drones several years ago to film suicide car bomb attacks, which militants posted online as part of their propaganda campaigns to raise awareness to their cause and to recruit and radicalise others to their ranks. More recently, American and Iraqi military commanders have revealed that Daesh is using drones to support direct action on the battlefield.  Throughout the summer of 2016, American troops in Iraq and Syria reported seeing small drones hovering near their bases and around the front lines in northern Iraq.  The commercially available drones were being deployed for surveillance and reconnaissance by Daesh who also called on their followers to implant small store-bought drones with grenades or other explosives, directing recruits to use them to launch attacks on crowded places at the Rio Olympic Games. While no such attacks occurred during the Olympics, security forces countering the threat from Daesh were alerted to the potential risk from deadly and determined drone strikes.

Threat to threat

When Kurdish forces fighting Daesh in northern Iraq shot down a small drone the size of a model airplane last year, they believed it was like the dozens of drones the terrorist organization had been flying for reconnaissance in the area.  Seizing the drone and transporting it back to their outpost for further examination, the captured drone was thought to be able to provide intelligence on Daesh drone operations. But as they were taking it apart, the small Improvised Explosive Device (IED) contained inside detonated, killing two Kurdish fighters in what is believed to be the first time Daesh has successfully used a drone with explosives to kill troops on the battlefield.

The drone IED attack has been recently followed by further Daesh drone operations, prompting American commanders in Iraq to issue a warning to forces fighting the group to treat any type of small flying aircraft as a potential explosive device. For some American military analysts and drone experts, the incidents confirmed their view that military authorities were slow to anticipate the terrorist adaption of drones as weapons.  Based on developments, it is right to believe that drones will continue to present a security challenge in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

The CTC suggests that in the future, off-the-shelf drones used by terrorist groups will be able to carry heavier payloads, fly and loiter longer, venture farther from their controller and employ secure communications links.  The increasing technical sophistication of drones, when combined with the number of drones to be used in attacks, is likely to significantly enhance the scope and seriousness of the current drone threat landscape.

The terrorist interest in drones as an attack platform has been diverse which has spanned a number of ideologies and geographic regions.  All in authority would be wise to recognise the new and emerging threat from UAVs. The attack of the drones remains in its infancy, and with the proliferation of various drones, the development of swarm-drone technologies and the real threat of cyber drone-jacking, counter measures to effectively detect, deter and disrupt rogue drones are rapidly required.

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