Technology

How Can 'Disruption' And 'Destruction' By Drones Be Prevented?

The Defence Select Committee has heard so-called Islamic State is "pioneering" the threat posed drones.

The Defence Select Committee has discussed the rising threat of domestic drones.

Topics of discussion included the current technological landscape of the phenomenon, the threats they pose and how these can be combatted through policy and force.

Dr Anna Jackman, lecturer in Political Geography at Royal Holloway University, and Arthur Holland Michel from Bard College's Center for the Study of the Drone in New York, both spoke to the committee during the session.

The researchers touched on how powerful technology can easily be obtained and modified into terror threats and how terror group so-called Islamic State (IS) is "pioneering" the creative use of drones in hostile contexts.

Committee Chair, Dr Julian Lewis MP, asked:

"They can do surveillance, they can do propaganda... they can certainly do disruption, but the most important point... is can they do destruction?"

Terror and hostile use

The committee heard that a variety of commercially available drone models pose a variety of security threats.

Dr Jackman regarded this as a new 'ecosystem' to be considered in defence.

Functional ranges vary from 100 metres on cheaper aircraft to 8,000 metres (five miles) amongst higher specification drones.

Speeds vary from 10 to 90km/h, altitudes reaching up to 5km and flight times from seven to 40 minutes.

Drones have been produced which are capable of carrying payloads weighing several kilograms.

While security breaches can occur for a number of reasons, the committee focused its questioning on malicious use.

Last year the first drone assassination attempt on record targeted the President of Venezuela, while Mr Holland Michel said children were capable of modifying a Toys 'R' Us drone with a Bluetooth-operated claw to pose similar dangers from above. 

Crowds were discussed as being at possible risk as targets of armed on non-armed drones, as well as the dangers in agricultural settings where the mere presence of an aircraft could cause stampedes.

Dr Jackman said:

"You're seeing this kind of volume amplification and the idea that drones above you can cause harm below... cause confusion and muddy a scene."

Though the drone threat at Gatwick airport in 2018 caused large disruption and military response, prompting questions of how to deal with them, the committee discussed the dangers of drones interacting with planes and turbines.

Mr Holland Michel discussed potential threat-analysis scenarios, such as an F-35 fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier: "A small drone with a small explosive payload lands on one of the wings and detonates."

He continued: "You may cause any human harm, but you've certainly caused a great deal of property damage."

Gatwick Airport during the drone chaos.
Gatwick Airport suffered huge delays in 2018 after drones entered the airspace.

Observing IS

Mr Holland Michel explained there are "two barriers to entry" when acquiring a "dangerous" drone.

"You can either have financial resources or technical expertise," he said, and that terror groups such as IS have all the systems in place to lead the way in drone threat innovation.

Dr Jackson says the group is "not typical" amongst non-state actors in their resourcing:

"They pioneer the kinetic drone use on the battlefield, there's been some excellent work into the supply chains that they use."

Makeshift factories fuel drone units within the terrorist group, while seven companies from 16 countries are used to source commercial drones for hostile means.

While the nature of drone attacks detract from the martyrdom sought through suicide bombing, Dr Jackson said IS are becoming "a bit more creative".

The Defence Select Committee heard explosives can be "embedded" into aircraft, with downed drones going off during later inspection, while Mr Holland Michels explained IS is using drones for battle management, guiding IEDs and engaging in reconnaissance.

Drone-shot footage, like this from a Reaper during strikes in Syria, can be broadcast to social media, posing "propaganda issues" (Picture: MOD).
Drone-shot footage, like this from a Reaper during strikes in Syria, can be broadcast to social media, posing "propaganda issues" (Picture: MOD).

Global innovation: a wider threat?

The development of drone technology across the world is leading to new capabilities that can fall into safe and unsafe hands.

Alongside kinetic force, cyber threats are posed by high-spec drones, the committee heard.

Aircraft can be fitted with jammers and other tools capable of interfering with communications and intercepting cellphone data. Mr Holland Michel said that Russia has already used this technology to send "false text messages directly to the cellphones of Ukrainian soldiers", saying: "You should defect, your supervisors do not care about you."

Meanwhile, the development of 'wi-fi sniffer' drones poses a threat to sensitive data, while future funding for bio-inspired drones will allow them to mimic the appearance of birds and insects.

Detection becomes harder still with micro-drones like the British Black Hornet and the development of hand-signal-controlled drones.

The technology that drives the appeal to own a drone also makes them hard to counter.

Frequency hopping improves the function for the controller, yet makes it harder to intercept.

The British micro-drone, Black Hornet, controlled by a Royal Marine (Picture: MOD).

Countering future threats

The Ministry of Defence has launched a £2 million fund to counter the threat drones pose, while the European Commission-funded Aladdin 2020 project is working towards a Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System (CUAS).

UK laws were identified which could provide legal cover for countering drones, though many date back to before the recent curve in drone popularity and do not specifically address the technology.

On the battlefield, Directed-Energy Weapons have seen investment, with radio frequency weapons showing promise in destroying swarms of drones.

Mr Holland Michel explained that a comparative lack of information exists on drones when compared to suicide bombers, as there "hasn't been a terrorist attack with a drone" in Europe or the US.

Looking forward, the committee heard from Mr Holland Michel that entering the mind of the enemy would be paramount in preventing an attack:

"A good CUAS team knows all the scenarios that the adversary has in mind for how to use a drone... plus one."