The Unrealized Threat of Weaponized Drones

The drone threat is expanding. Warnings from industry and the intelligence community regarding the adoption of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) or do-it-yourself (DIY) drones have gone unheeded and it is not for a lack of information. Numerous public reports have revealed the use of drones by narco-terrorists to target border agents, drones used to sneak weapons into prisons and drones being used for artillery spotting by ISIS militants.

Further research in specific localized conflicts shows the reality of militants, insurgents and terrorists using drones armed with explosives as basic precision guided munitions. In Syria, a video showing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that has been weaponized with an improvised explosive device (IED) makes this growing threat clear and should quell the myth that COTSs hobby-grade drones are not suitable to deliver explosive payloads.

Further evidence of drone weaponization can be found by examining open source intelligence of recently captured weaponized drones used by hostile actors. Something as simple as drone design choices offers insight into the tactics, training, and procedures (TTP’s). These drones are modeled after a child’s toy airplane and created by commonly available, relatively inexpensive commodity hardware.

While the drones themselves may not be sophisticated, we cannot make the same conclusion about the modifications. To enable a COTS or DIY drone to deliver an explosive, one must possess a general understanding of aerodynamics coupled with extensive testing in order to accomplish modifications like this. For these reasons, it is important to not jump to conclusions about the sophistication of the owners of these weaponized drone.

Further information on the drone users’ sophistication can be gained by understanding how it is directed. We are seeing drones that do not require a camera or associated First Person View (FPV) setup. Without a camera, the drone pilot would need above average flying skills. The reason for this is a pilot needs to be relatively close by and within ‘Line of Sight’ of the aircraft or accompanied by a spotter with binoculars or other optics. Traditionally speaking, an airframe is easier to fly via first-person view versus line-of-sight. This alone can help a novice pilot accomplish a more advanced flight then they could with assistance from the camera system. FPV feels more like a video game and has a more natural skill progression.

All of this suggests that not only is the weaponization of the drone a setup up from typical militant tactics, but it also suggests a deeper set of experience, ability and training on the part of the terrorists deploying these platforms.

Past evidence of weaponized commercial drones is suggesting militants like ISIS are choosing their receiver/transmitter technologies based on operational needs. For example, numerous drones recovered from terrorists show that groups like ISIS are increasingly focusing on systems that deliver better range, data rates and resistance to interference from military jammers. This suggests strategic thinking about operational experience as well as the drone’s capabilities, their flying characteristics and the art of the possible.

We are witnessing evolutionary innovation from militant groups. Hezbollah recently began deploying drones that have been rigged to drop salvaged munitions, in this case Chinese MZD-2 sub munitions from a missile, to bomb Syrian rebel positions (see video here). Most concerning is that the techniques and tactics developed are quickly disseminated and adopted among other terror groups and criminal networks. These techniques become highly portable and accessible, allowing anyone, anywhere, with the right information and guidance, to rapidly weaponize a drone.

Unfortunately, we seem to be at the start of a new terror and asymmetric warfare trend analogous to the rapid adoption, use and sophistication of IED’s.

While weaponized commercial drones have not made much of a public appearance in the developed world, their existing use and rapid development is undisputable. Worse, they represent a threat that we are poorly prepared for. As such, security organizations, law enforcement and public interest groups need to seriously consider the threat of weaponized drones and start putting in place reasonable systems and plans to counter them.

Kevin Finisterre is a senior software engineer at Department 13. Finisterre has spent his career assessing web applications and network vulnerabilities relating to the identification and exploitation of software.

 Robi Sen is the chief technical officer of Department 13. He is a communications industry professional with a 25-year career in IT, engineering, and research on cutting edge projects for NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Defense.

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