A professor in the department of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham in England, David Dunn explores the ways commercial drones are being used for bad intent. He spoke with senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in March.
Air & Space: What led to your research on the criminal use of drones?
Dunn: One of my longstanding academic research interests is the relationship between technological change and the vulnerabilities it creates. Phone cameras, fast processors, compact batteries, and live-streaming have given birth to a technology that gives a bird’s-eye view of the world, but the same technology can also violate the security provided by walls and fences. Criminals and terrorists have also spotted these opportunities—and drone use for criminal and malign purposes has followed.
What are some of the ways in which drones could be used for illegal activities?
Drone-mounted cameras allow reconnaissance of homes and shops from behind security fences: to see if lights are on, windows are shut, and doors are secure. Burglars then choose the most vulnerable target. Drones have also been used in ports to [smuggle] containers of illicit goods: When security patrols approach their container, another drone has been used to create a diversion. Their most common criminal use, however, has been to deliver contraband (drugs, phones, SIM cards) to prison windows and over prison exercise-yard walls. Delivering weapons to prisoners is also theoretically possible, as is the arming of drones with firearms and explosives. YouTube is awash with individuals who have armed drones and demonstrated their effect as weapons platforms.
Drone use has proliferated among hobbyists. Does the technology exist to monitor civilian drone use in a way that’s practical?
While large commercial drones require a license to operate and formal registration, this is not the case for most small drones in most countries. This means that when they crash or there is a near-miss with aircraft, there is little prospect of the owner being traced, identified, and prosecuted. Manufacturers have tried to get round this problem by installing geo-fencing technology, where the drone is blocked from flying near airports and public buildings using GPS coordinates. But these systems can be hacked and blocked. Registration of drone users and drones, compulsory insurance, fitting drones with microchips and friend-or-foe transponders have all been suggested as ways to trace ownership, and thus to deter the errant user. Just now, however, drone technology is ahead of the law, and governments in most countries have been slow to catch up. The fact that near-misses with aircraft and the closure of airports due to drone incursions occur on a frequent basis is testimony to the failure to regulate this new technology.
Have we underestimated the ways in which drones could be used to compromise personal privacy?
Drones present an ideal platform from which privacy can be invaded by the paparazzi or the peeping Tom. Drone users have also showed a desire to live-stream outdoor events, sporting occasions, and private weddings. The addition of facial recognition technology also raises privacy issues as drones could be used to identify individuals in a crowd. Interestingly, different countries respond in different ways to private security concerns, in part depending on their trust of the state and their attitude towards privacy.
Drones being flown near airports is obviously problematic, but are there other places where civilian drone use should be banned?
Although, understandably, most attention and legislation focus on banning drone flying near airports, the concern does not stop there. Indeed, many local laws have been passed explicitly banning drone use in parks, sport fields, and residential/urban areas. This is as much to do with noise, nuisance, and privacy concerns as is it to do with safety, but collisions between drones and people can be serious and indeed fatal. Larger drones especially have been likened to “flying lawnmowers,” and can cause devastating injuries.
Is there a potential for drones to be used for terrorism?
Use of small- and medium-sized drones by terrorists has been perfected in recent years in Iraq and Syria, and there is growing concern that these techniques may migrate back to Europe and the U.S. with returning foreign fighters—or directly through the internet. Drones have variously been used for reconnaissance, propaganda filming, and the delivery of rifle grenades. The symbolic value of terrorists being able to conduct their own drone strikes is not lost on ISIL. Recent terrorist attacks in Europe have employed everyday items such as knives and vehicles, and drones now represent an accessible, affordable technology with the capacity to harm directly—as a platform for a weapon or as a means to herd people toward a planted explosive device. Any concerted attack would likely use multiple attacking drones, while other drones were used for reconnaissance/attack management and to live-stream the attack to social media. Having said that, drones are more limited in the weight of their payload than a terrestrial vehicle, and access to high explosives is a limiting factor, but their ability to deliver their attack with surprise, precision, and reach makes them a formidable and attractive weapon for terrorists.
Does the technology exist to counter the drone threat?
Defending against the drone threat has proved a considerable challenge and needs to be considered in two parts. The first concerns detection and identification. Most traditional radar systems at airports can’t see drones, as they are configured for faster and larger aircraft. Only the installation of hologram radars will enable drones to be detected, identified, and assessed for risk. While some airports, such as Charles de Gaulle in Paris, are installing these systems, the process is slow, expensive, and not a legal requirement. There are currently no plans for nuclear power stations and government buildings to adopt these detection systems. The White House, however, has extensive counter-air systems, in part due to its proximity to Reagan-National Airport.
Once identified, however, there is no easy way to eliminate an identified drone threat. Various methods have been tried to deal with this problem from the use of falconry—this hurts their talons—to drones using nets to catch the rogue machines, to net-firing guns deployed from the ground. Simply shooting down the drones is more difficult than it sounds due to concern for collateral damage and the ability to hit an object of uncertain height and distance. More promising avenues have included jamming the signal and “spoofing” the drone (taking control of its flight systems). None of these are as yet effective, fool-proof, or proven. All have downsides, not least the cost of fielding these systems, interference with other aircraft or smartphones, and the need to cater for multiple drones approaching from multiple directions. Not only is the counter-drone technology struggling to catch up, but the legal authority to interfere with a drone is also lacking.
Can you cite examples of drone regulation that have been successful?
Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have taken the decision to ban the private ownership of drones altogether. Others such as Sweden have moved to ban drones with cameras—only to reverse the decision in 2017 under pressure from commercial operators. The rules on flying drones in the U.S. and Europe are similar and based on common sense. They require operators not to fly near airports, buildings, and people, not to go above 400 feet, and to use them responsibly. The American restrictions go further and prohibit drone flights over stadiums and sports events, near emergency-response efforts, fires, and while the drone operators are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The problem with this approach is that it is very difficult to trace errant drone use, and as a consequence there is no deterrent to flouting the rules through ignorance or malice. So while the rules are obeyed for the most part, the number of near-misses with aircraft continues to increase as use proliferates and there is little apparent action that can be taken to lessen this trend. The Gatwick Airport incident before Christmas 2018 illustrates this perfectly. A drone halted all flights for 37 hours, with the police unable to identify who was operating the device or where. In the end, the incident ended not with an arrest, but with the cessation of the incursion. Who operated the drone and why remains a mystery.
What about the good side of drones?
The regulation of drone use faces a series of hurdles, as described, of a suitable legal framework—a way to deter blundering operators as well as determined bad guys, and effective counter-drone technology. The most significant obstacle of all, however, is the sheer utility of commercial drone use and the opportunities afforded by the cheap and easy access to the air that they afford. Already drones are now an integrated part of outdoor filming, whether for wildlife programs or real-estate sales. They are also essential for pipeline, rail, and cable inspection, for checking windows on skyscrapers, and the operations of offshore oil and gas rigs. Any job that is remote, dull, dangerous, and dirty is ideal for a drone, and the cost savings compered to helicopter use are enormous. Drones are also good for the delivery of small packages across crowded cities. From London to San Paulo, drones are being used to ferry essentials between hospital rooftops and research laboratories. The whole airspace ecosystem below 400 feet could be the future domain of the drone. Amazon already has plans for parcel service, and pizza delivery by air promises to be cheaper and quicker than by bike. For countries without an extensive road network, the ability to deliver medicines and vaccines to remote locations is even more of an attractive proposition. How much of this new world materializes, however, and how universal its application becomes is still dependent on the safe regulation of the drone environment, and in that domain the race is still on between access to the air and how to manage it.