We are doomed to a future of exploding drones

In 2018, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro was delivering a speech when two drones carried and detonated explosives above the audience, injuring at least 8 audience members.

The Venezuelan government claims that the weapons used to carry out the attack were explosives attached to off-the-shelf DJI M600 drones, a $5700 model that advertises 16 minutes of flight time with a 6kg camera attached. Each of the Caracas drones carried a relatively lightweight 1 kilogram payload of C4 plastic explosives. All things considered, this is a pretty cost effective method of credibly assassinating a head of state (Disclaimer: This is not military advice. Please don’t do this.)

DJI M600 Drone (Photo by Wired)

Even in 2018, bombs-strapped-to-drones were a relatively crude method of improvised explosive delivery. In the Spring of 2017, the terrorist group ISIS released a propaganda video showing modified quadcopters costing $650 being used to drop bombs with a moderate amount of accuracy.

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point released a detailed report investigating how ISIS was able to acquire such sophisticated capabilities relatively quickly. They found that the terrorists’ primary innovation was combining high-tech consumer drones with low-tech mechanisms to drop improvised explosive devices perfected in the last 20 years of Middle Eastern insurgencies.

A report from the Los Angeles Times paints a vivid picture of the drones’ use in warfare:

During the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul, which government forces recaptured in July, dozens of Iraqi troops were killed or wounded by 40-millimeter grenades and light explosives dropped from buzzing overhead devices so numerous that one U.S. commander likened them to killer bees.

It was, U.S. officials later acknowledged, perhaps the first time since the Vietnam War when the American military was largely powerless against enemy aircraft — in this case aircraft only a tiny fraction of the size of U.S. warplanes

The report’s troubling conclusion is that shortcomings in drone countermeasures mean that protecting people from inexpensive drone attacks is still very much an unsolved problem.

Seeing the drones’ obvious effectiveness, even state actors are getting in on the game. Just this week, the Turkish military placed an order for over 500 “suicide drones” that carry explosives and fly at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.

What can we do to stop this?

The fact that anyone can produce an effective explosive delivery system for a few hundred dollars is clearly horrifying, but preventing the proliferation of this technology from proliferating is an impossible task. Consumer-grade drones aren’t going anywhere, and neither are homemade bombs. Thus, the objective turns to defending against drone terrorism.

Current results are not encouraging.

DJI, the world’s largest drone manufacturer by far, currently enforces no-fly-zones (NFZs) via software. In most areas, it is narrowly tailored to airports, stadiums, and other areas that could pose security risks. But in conflict zones, they stretch much further, covering large portions of Syria and Iraq.

But these NFZs may not be effective. A software hack could allow the drone to ignore them, and the most popular open-source software that powers homebuilt drones does not include any restrictions around where to fly. Even if it did, it would be trivially removable. For better or worse, drone software and hardware is largely a commodity technology whose proliferation is impossible to prevent.

Anti-Drone Weapons

With drone control poised to be much less successful than gun control, interest in anti-drone weapons has surged. The US Military in particular has focused its efforts on directed energy weapons (lasers). Current implementations have been placed on platforms ranging from dune buggies to Navy ships. The technology has been shown in several demonstrations, and the videos are quite satisfying:

The US Army has also purchased drone jamming systems from IAI, an Israeli state-owned aerospace company.

Neither the laser nor jammer approaches are good fits for civilian use. Directed-energy weapons are very expensive, and GPS jamming wreaks havoc on telecommunications and aviation infrastructure.

The most promising anti-drone weapon for civilian use appears to be drone-hunting drones. In a test of various anti-drone weapons done by WIRED, the most performant system was the SparrowHawk, another modified DJI M600 drone that contains a large net used to catch other drones.

SparrowHawk (Photo by WIRED)

The SparrowHawk is must be remotely controlled, but other approaches are using AI to simplify drone hunting. Anduril’s Anvil, a drone that weighs as much as a bowling ball uses sensor towers to automatically sense other drones and ram itself into them, with a human in the loop to approve all interceptions.

Anduril Anvil

None of these systems have been widely deployed by civilians or thoroughly tested in real-world settings. Security is by definition an asymmetric game: attackers just need to exploit a single weakness, while defenders must guard against all threats in order to guarantee safety.

It is also very reactive: countermeasures tend to be adopted only after prominent attacks. One botched shoe bombing is why the TSA makes you remove your shoes at the airport. Given how inevitable domestic drone attacks feel, I can only hope that they are similarly botched before defenses are widely adopted.