A new report by a London-based think tank has warned that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, could potentially be utilised by terrorist groups as simple and effective airborne explosive devices, and as such has stressed that a number of measures should be introduced to mitigate that risk.
Chris Abbott, the lead author of the report, stated that, “Drones are a game-changer in the wrong hands,” and the think tank – the Remote Control Project – has urged drone manufacturers to program GPS coordinates of no-fly zones into their products and the government to relax regulations on radio frequency jammers.
In addition, the report has called for stricter licencing regulation in the UK as, currently, anyone can own a drone for non-commercial purposes as long as it weighs less than 20kg. However, some experts have suggested that failure to register your drone would be unlikely to deter terrorists!
There are hundreds of drones in use and there has already been several instances of them being used for more unscrupulous motives - from the disruption of sporting events to assisting in information gathering for potential burglaries. There has also been recent examples of more suspicious and worrying activity including drones being flown over well-known landmarks in France and so-called Islamic State releasing videos of them being used in reconnaissance missions in Iraq and Syria.
The report added: ‘The UK government, police, military and security services will need to introduce countermeasures to reduce or mitigate the risk of commercially available drones being used for attack.’
Abbot continued: “The use of drones for surveillance and attack is no longer the purview of state militaries alone. A range of terrorist, insurgent, criminal, corporate and activist groups have already shown their desire and ability to use drones against British targets.”
The report, which analysed more than 200 commercially available drones, claims that: ‘The best defence against the hostile use of drones is to employ a hierarchy of countermeasures encompassing regulatory countermeasures, passive countermeasures and active countermeasures.’
Countermeasures proposed by the report include the limiting of payload capacity, anti-drone and drone tracking systems and no-fly zone alert systems.
Another possible countermeasure of a rogue drone that is perceived as a potential danger would of course be to deploy a rival. Michigan Technological University has developed a drone catcher system that deploys an octacopter armed with a gun that fires out a net to entrap and carry off rogue unmanned aerial vehicles flying where they shouldn’t be. The idea is that if the rogue drone happened to be carrying an explosive payload, for instance, shooting it down or having it crash land would not be desirable. So the drone catcher is capable of mid-air capture and transport, either autonomously or via human control.
It should also be said that there are a number of sceptics that site a number of reasons why drones do not pose an immediate threat to the UK – namely the requirement of line of sight for operation, limited battery life, range and payload carrying capacity – with the increase in any of these factors requiring a significant rebuild of the drone.
Commenting on this Abbott continued: “By assessing previous drone use by hostile and potentially hostile groups we identified various potential threat groups - terrorist, insurgent, criminal, corporate and activist - and two primary ways such groups might target British interests - attacks and intelligence gathering. Depending on the group and the desired effect, limitations to drone operation (e.g. line of sight) or capability (e.g. battery life) do not necessarily restrict the use of drones in any particular operation. Furthermore, there are commercially available platforms capable of carrying a payload significant enough to deliver an IED for example.
“Indeed, VLOS (visual line of sight) operations can legally extend out to 500m horizontally and 400ft vertically from the pilot, which is not an insignificant distance (particularly when compared to other methods of attack or surveillance), and many platforms are of course capable of greater range.”