In August, Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro claimed he was the target of a drone-borne explosive assassination attempt.

This article was written by Ben Joelson and Sean Horner, directors of the Chertoff Group’s Strategic Advisory Services, advising clients on physical security risk management.

While some sources assert that the entire episode may have been staged to assist Maduro in consolidating power in distressed Venezuela, the incident highlights the challenges of defending against and mitigating drone threats. The United States has experienced our own less nefarious drone incidents, including one that occurred in 2015 at the White House.

Although it garnered less notoriety than the Maduro incident, a drone carrying deactivated grenades, and likely flown by an organised cartel, targeted a police chief in Baja Mexico in June of this year. These incidents bring to the forefront an issue that security professionals and governments have been struggling with since the introduction of inexpensive, and readily available, commercialised unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or “drones” — how to identify, classify, and defend against one or many hostile drones?

The answer is complicated.  Like many past technology solutions, mitigating hostile drones will require collaboration and convergence of public and private expertise, resources and technology.

Throughout history, the “cat and mouse game” between adversary and defender has driven many advances in security technology—ranging from Linus Yale’s invention of pin tumbler locks in 1861 to complex electronic countermeasures aimed at defeating improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the drone challenge is unique because it sits at the intersection of three trends: the availability and relatively low cost of commercial drones that are growing increasingly sophisticated; lessons learned from the IED-era about jamming and defeating a range of explosive devices; and a domestic regulatory and legal environment that is still playing catch up. Equally alarming is that the United States Government does not appear to have a widespread solution.

In May 2018, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) introduced a bill, S.2836 – Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018, which would in effect provide The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) legal authority to deter, detect, track and take action against unauthorised UAS to protect designated facilities, infrastructure and assets.  The bill remains under committee review.  Two months later in July, DHS Secretary Kierstjan Nielsen published an op-ed in the Washington Post, outlining how unprepared the United States Government is to deal with a hostile drone threat.

Much of this lack of preparedness, especially within the private sector, stems from an antiquated Federal Communications Commission (FCC)blanket ban on all jamming activity domestically in the United States. Not long after Secretary Nielsen’s op-ed Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) introduced H.R. 6401 – Preventing Emerging Threats Acts of 2018, which was referred to The U.S. House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Aviation.  While the most recent The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) carves out some exceptions for The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), other agencies, including Secretary Nielsen’s DHS and the DOJ, are largely prohibited from employing drone countermeasures.

Even with an amendment to the FCC’s blanket prohibition – which was designed largely to prevent GPS jamming and other RF-spectrum activities that could negatively impact commercial flights – questions remain around the efficacy of existing technology to defeat an airborne drone threat—especially operating at high velocity and altitude.

Current Counter-UAS (C-UAS) technology ranges from kinetic options like the shotgun shells with inside nets, purchased by the U.S. Air Force in 2016 as a stop-gap measure, to directed RF-Jamming technology utilised in a series of handheld options for ground-based defenders. Due to the FCC and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restrictions, private C-UAS technology companies have focused heavily on developing best-in-class drone detection and classification technology rather than defeat mechanisms.

This technology leverages a range of sensors including ground-based radar, acoustic, RF-detection, and static cameras to identify drone incursions in designated airspace. The thought process is simple: you cannot defeat what you cannot see, and while these systems are impressive, they seem to be tailored to detect nuisance drones conducting illicit or harassing surveillance above private property. But how well can these systems detect and defeat a high-speed drone incursion intent on delivering an explosive payload?

No matter how impressive C-UAS technology may be, or how effective it could be in protecting critical infrastructure and other high-value targets, many of these technologies cannot be deployed without significant changes to current laws and regulations governing the use of such technology.

Almost all commercially available technology and frankly the technology near-implementation at U.S. military installations require a human in the “kill chain”. There simply is not enough implementation data to entrust an autonomous system with classifying an aerial target and firing ammunition, net or otherwise, to bring it down. Other systems, including shoulder-fired RF-jamming devices, require an operator to visually identify a target before blasting a cone of disruptive RF noise designed to execute a “return to sender” command or force an immediate descent.

These systems may work for slow-moving drones that do not present an overt physical threat, such as those flown by a nosy neighbour or backyard journalist, but questions remain around whether a ground operator could reasonably identify a target at 400 ft. of altitude and moving at a high velocity—even with early warning detection from a radar-based system.

So, what does the future of drone denial look like? It is likely that the defence industry will continue to lead the charge when it comes to developing a viable automated – and maybe one day autonomous – solution. The DoD continues to host a once-classified exercise called BLACK DART at Eglin Air Force Base to address this question. And, while some of the solutions tested there are undoubtedly classified, the future of drone denial will likely include directed energy—an area the U.S. Air Force has devoted a significant amount of resources into developing. Specifically, high-powered microwaves (HPM’s) and high-powered lasers (HPL’s), coupled with advanced tracking and classification technology, is likely where drone denial is headed.

But these endeavours will be costly and prohibitive for smaller, private C-UAS companies to develop, which will most likely fall to one of the larger aerospace and defence contractors with both the budget and capacity to research, design, test, and evaluate such a system on their own.

Unfortunately, this leaves many U.S. government agencies and private sector organisations, including those who operate power plants, airports, stadiums and other mass gathering venues in the United States, without a perfect solution. Since most of the commercial denial systems are not cleared for use in the United States, and others likely carry the same restrictions as a firearm (e.g., shotgun shells), companies are left to invest in drone detection technology and notification systems that sound the alarm or instruct personnel to shelter in place—certainly less than an ideal solution, especially for defeating an explosive-laden drone.

That said, as has been the trend with many other technologies, once the industry identifies a solution, these systems will likely integrate with existing drone detection technologies, making such investments extremely valuable. Perhaps companies can take comfort in knowing other first world governments (including the U.S.) still struggle with drone incursions, as evidenced by Secretary Nielsen’s note.

Additional “near-misses” continue to highlight a lack of preparedness, including a 2017 incident when a drone collided with a commercial aircraft in Canada near the Jean Lesage International Airport, or when a drone narrowly missed fans at a San Diego Padres game before crashing in the stadium.

Finally, it is worth noting that while a comprehensive solution from detection to defeat is desirable, certain companies are already carving out specialized capabilities that can one day support an open-architecture ecosystem of drone detection, monitoring, navigation, and mitigation response options.

In certain circumstances jamming the drone might make sense, in others, it may be enough to simply close privacy blinds to prevent surveillance or warn spectators to shelter-in-place. With over 100,000 “Remote Pilot Certificates” having been issued by the FAA, and the advent of more regular drone flights using upgraded technology, C-UAS research and development will play a key role in future security system design.

Given the range of drone technology currently in use and the myriad of response and mitigation options, it is also is likely that a “system of systems” will be the best option versus one homogeneous end-to-end solution. Either way, security stakeholders need to start preparing and thinking about drone threats now or face being overwhelmed by an exploding market in five to ten years.

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JohnH (@guest_431529)
2 years ago

A well written and timely report on a growing problem.

maurice10 (@guest_431548)
2 years ago

The drone market should have been very tightly controlled, and seriously limited. But no, they were sold in their thousands! Just a small percentage of those could wreak havoc on our societies if they get into the hands of those with evil intent.

BB85 (@guest_431553)
2 years ago
Reply to  maurice10

They are no more dangerous than someone driving a white van with the wrong intent. Do you honestly think regulating them is going to stop a terrorist purchasing one on the black market? Regulating them is a complete waste of time other than to prosecute someone after they have commited a crime.

Peter Crisp
Peter Crisp (@guest_431560)
2 years ago
Reply to  BB85

I completely agree with BB85. This is like any new technology, it can be used by terrorists but that’s no reason why they shouldn’t be available. The same could be argued about the entire internet in that it makes entire nations vulnerable to hacking and being completely crippled but it’s a tool used by billions of people daily.

We have to accept that everything comes with inherent risk and yes drones are a risk but they aren’t unstoppable or undetectable and as long as places and people that need protecting keep them in mind it should be ok.

maurice10 (@guest_431573)
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Crisp

I don’t advocate banning just sensible controls. Nothing could penetrate a full sports stadium with such ease. The only feasible option is to introduce countermeasures, which will cost authorities around the World billions. when it could have been much more strictly organised when the systems went on general sale.

BB85 (@guest_431578)
2 years ago
Reply to  maurice10

How do you enforce these bans? Do you think everyone who purchases a drone should be registered and need a license like a FAC and be vetted by the police to see if they are suitable or not? That would cost millions in its own right and anyone looking to commit a crime using one will either ‘steal’ it from a legal owner or buy it on the black market making all of the beaurocracy on ligitimate owners a complete waste of time.

BB85 (@guest_431579)
2 years ago
Reply to  maurice10

Sorry not bans. Controls.

maurice10 (@guest_431554)
2 years ago

No NN85, just no!

David E Flandry
David E Flandry (@guest_431559)
2 years ago

Maduro needed a reason for another crackdown on freedom. This drone attack was right on time.

Julian (@guest_431584)
2 years ago

I’m not sure this takes us into massively new territory regarding “basic” terrorism (for want of a better term), i.e. trying to cause terror within a population by indiscriminate attacks as opposed to more focussed attacks on specific government or political targets. I realise this article is probably talking more about the later but regarding basic terrorism , as already mentioned white vans are pretty widely available but so are suitcases and backpacks. In fact if anything a white van is more scary than a drone, a suitcase or a backpack when it comes to basic terrorism because a white… Read more »

Steve (@guest_431645)
2 years ago

At the minute the threat seems kinda low. Commercial UAV are still small with limited lift power. Their capability to carry significant explosives to do any real damage outside a single target assination is limited. The bigger the drones get the easier they will be detected and handled with conventional anti air weapons.

Will that change over time, probably, but making RF jammers more commonly available is just as likely to cause harm as good, so isn’t the answer.

Julian (@guest_431655)
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve

I agree although at the opposite extreme (some might even characterise it as “project fear”), if I were writing a thriller or I was a newspaper editor trying to whip up an alarmist headline, the nightmare scenario would be a chemical or biological payload delivered on a crowd where a few micrograms per person could kill so well within the existing payload capacities of small commercial drones. The ability of a drone to release said payload from height could also maximise the dispersion effect thus increasing casualties. Thankfully such highly potent payloads (such as Novichok I suppose) would I assume… Read more »

David (@guest_431678)
2 years ago

A commercial drone couldn’t carry enough payload to do any real damage to infrastructure, its more of a nuisance threat, low altitude and relatively low speed mitigates the damage it can do. To put it in perspective, you could just as easily build a jet powered radio controlled aircraft with GPS control, it doesn’t need to be a quadcopter style airframe, yet we haven’t seen an attack with this type of aircraft even though they have been around for a long time. The terrorist threat is being over played re drones hitting critical infrastructure, the biggest threat these “toys” possess… Read more »