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Cheap and deadly: how off-the-shelf drones become weapons


By Jai Galliott

Related Story: Venezuela arrests six over drone explosions during Maduro speech
Related Story: ‘They attempted to assassinate me’: Venezuela President alleges exploding drone attack

Over the weekend, authoritarian Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro became the first national leader to publicly face a drone-enabled assassination attempt.

Maduro was giving a speech in Caracas when two drones equipped with high explosives detonated, sending assembled troops running for their lives.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said the drones were each packed with a kilogram of C-4, a plastic explosive used throughout World War II for demolition charges.

Video purportedly from the scene of the attack shows a small multi-rotor drone hovering above the crowd before exploding mid-air.

The drone is similar to those sold online for less than $1,000 and some high school students are capable of building similar systems that can carry much greater loads.

The attack confirms fears that cheap drones available off-the-shelf, or constructed with easy-to-buy components, could be used in violent attacks.

Security surround Maduro Photo: Drones armed with explosives detonated near Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro as he gave a speech to soldiers. (Xinhua via AP)

How worried should we be?

Analysts have spoken for years about how these new affordable technologies could allow non-state actors to strike against military forces on deployment.

The threat in the military domain is clear, with the BBC reporting last year that an ally of the United States used a multimillion-dollar Patriot missile to shoot down a $200 quadcopter not dissimilar to that used in the Maduro attack.

But should the public be worried about consumer-level drones causing pandemonium when next attending a political event or the like?

The answer is maybe, depending on the context.

Venezuelan guard injured Photo: A uniformed official bleeds from the head following an incident during a speech by Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela. (Xinhua via AP)

How can we stop them?

The challenge for police and security services is quickly detecting a rogue drone, then within moments either hacking it or jamming its signal to send it off course.

At major political events in the US, the Secret Service is known to utilise jamming equipment that could deter drone attacks. They also use jammers in presidential and vice presidential motorcades to disrupt signals that might detonate remotely-triggered improvised explosive devices, whether they are mounted on a drone or not.

It is safe to assume that similar drone-jamming equipment will be increasingly deployed at public events in Australia and elsewhere. In the UK, such systems have been deployed above Scotland Yard and elsewhere after successful tests at a Remembrance Day event.

However, it is illegal in the US, UK & Australia to sell signal jammers except for the narrow purposes of law enforcement, and even then, law enforcement and security agencies face challenges in mounting drone shields.

A drone flying Photo: The threat of drones in the military domain is clear. (Pixabay.com)

It’s not so simple

The flight-control and video-broadcasting systems of off-the-shelf drones often use the same radio frequencies as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS technologies in our pockets.

Jamming by security agencies — depending on how powerful or precise their efforts may be — could disrupt nearby Internet networks or phone conversations.

Testing in the real-world would also reveal unexpected effects from nearby buildings, trees and other sources of interference.

But even if jamming were 100 per cent effective, drone technology could soon locate its targets with camera recognition and hard-programming in a system independent of radio or GPS signals.

Plus, there’s little to protect us from attacks on a regular day at the beach, in the shopping mall, or at a sporting match, for example.

Drone disruption guns: it’s a thing

It is impossible to cover all our bases against drones, short of creating fleets of defensive drones or arming people in key locations with “drone disruption guns”, just as it’s impossible to guard against vehicle attacks on pedestrians at every possible location.

Of course, more can be done by governments and the public must remain conscious of the threat, without becoming paranoid.

International campaigners have sought to ban “lethal autonomous weapon systems” used by military forces when perhaps their efforts could have been better used to combat the threat posed by the common drone.

Jai Galliott researches defence and security technology at the Modern War Institute, part of the US Military Academy at West Point, and at the Australian Defence Force Academy at UNSW.



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