Why we should worry about domestic drones and how to bring them down

February 5, 2015
An employee displays the assembly of an unmanned aerial vehicle at the Integrated Dynamics research and development centre in Karachi

An employee displays the assembly of an unmanned aerial vehicle at the Integrated Dynamics research and development center in Karachi, June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Let’s imagine the worst-case scenario involving domestic drones. No, not the tiny quadcopter whose operator mistakenly crashed it on the south lawn of the White House. Let’s try something scarier.

Take several drones, and equip each with a few pounds of explosives, shrapnel and ball bearings. Then send them on a one-way kamikaze mission. As the technology advances, network the drones so they travel in a group and explode at the same time.



The question is: How do you stop them?

It might sound farfetched. But scenarios like this are now worrying officials in the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. A drone attack by evildoers hasn’t happened — yet. But it’s possible. German police arrested several far-right extremists who allegedly planned attacks with a drone in 2013.

A computer controlled U.S. Air Force drone prepares to lift off for a test flight of in the Micro Air Vehicles lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio

A computer-controlled U.S. Air Force drone prepares to lift off for a test flight in the Micro Air Vehicles lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, July 11, 2011. REUTERS/Skip Peterson

Like the car bomb, the drone bomb could become a cheap, ubiquitous and anonymous way to deliver explosives. The machines can hop over fences, bypass checkpoints and move too fast for a security team to react to. What if the target is a congressman, general or a president?

The good news is that drones are easily jammed. Almost all rely on a radio link to a ground controller, which makes them vulnerable to electronic interference. With an accurate enough sensor, anyone can search and pinpoint drones nearby, tune their jammer to the same frequency and overwhelm the vehicle with electronic “noise.”

Most domestic drones are highly vulnerable to this attack. The average consumer drones available in a hobby shop typically communicate using a frequency of 2.4 or 5.8 gigahertz, or some combination of both if they carry wireless video cameras.

Two devices using the same frequency can conflict with each other, which makes flying drones in congested urban areas inherently risky. Wireless Internet routers inside cellphones and laptops often broadcast using the same frequencies.

Most drone software is also rarely encrypted. For years, even the military’s most advanced surveillance drones suffered from this vulnerability, which the Taliban used to intercept Predator drone surveillance videos over Afghanistan. In 2011, Iran used a more sophisticated form of GPS “spoofing” to capture a secretive RQ-170 drone operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Camera drone flown by Wilson flies near the scene where two buildings were destroyed in an explosion, in the East Harlem section in New York City

A camera drone flown by Brian Wilson flies near where two buildings were destroyed in an explosion, in the East Harlem in New York, March 12, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar

There’s not much sympathy for the machines. The American public largely hates domestic use of drones, and only 3 percent are “very likely” to buy one this year, according to a recent Reuters American Insights poll.

But in a crowded area like a city or airport, searching and blocking — or hijacking — drones comes with its own set of problems. Sophisticated sensor and jamming devices are extremely expensive. A Homeland Security sensor deployed to spot — but not interfere with — drones flying above the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Minneapolis last July “cost several hundred thousand dollars to operate for just that night,” reported the New York Times.

The Secret Service uses covert radio-frequency jammers inside a Chevrolet Suburban that travels with the president’s motorcade. These devices disable remotely triggered improvised bombs. But because they have to disable explosives set off by a potentially large number of frequencies, the jammers saturate a wide spectrum, occasionally interfering with cellphones nearby.

This is just a temporary inconvenience for anyone standing near the convoy. If you think that’s bad, a permanent electromagnetic shield around the White House would interfere with the whole neighborhood.

Jamming transmitters is also illegal under the Communications Act of 1934. But as journalist Marc Ambinder pointed out, the Secret Service has some wiggle room around this law.

US soldier poses with 'Raven' drone during presentation by UAS at US military base in Vilseck-Grafenwoehr

U.S. soldier Randell Atkinson poses in the starting position with a “Raven” drone during its official presentation by the German and U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems at the U.S. military base in Vilseck-Grafenwoehr, October 8, 2013. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

It goes without saying that shooting a civilian drone out of the sky poses a whole other set of complications. But it’s happened outside the United States.

In December 2013, the shotgun-toting crew of a Chinese military helicopter shot down a fixed-wing drone, which looks like a tiny airplane, with an 8.5-foot wingspan, as it neared Beijing Capital Airport.  The drone delayed several flights. According to the state-run People’s Liberation Army Daily, police soon arrested three employees of the private drone company Beijing UAV Sci-Tech and charged them with endangering public security.

The drone crash near the White House on Jan. 26 didn’t come close to posing a threat. The operator was merely a drunk employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. So it’s unlikely the Secret Service will begin hovering above the nation’s capital on the lookout for unmanned vehicles — shotguns in hand.

Some would like the government to go further. After the drone incident at the White House, Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) called for building a defense system akin to Israel’s Iron Dome.

Iron Dome uses guided missiles to intercept incoming rockets. “Just like our friends in Israel feel comfortable with that Iron Dome,” Cummings told the Washington Post, “I want the people in the White House to feel comfortable, too, and I want the people who are trying to do us harm to know they cannot penetrate that sky over the White House.”

Drone is seen next to a television antenna above the family home of slain U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff in Pinecrest, Florida

A drone flies near a television antenna above the family home of slain journalist Steven Sotloff in Pinecrest, Florida, September 2, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity

But Iron Dome has a somewhat mixed success record, at best.  Even if the interceptors hit a rocket, the incoming warheads, in many cases, continue tumbling down toward populated areas. The same is true for a drone. Then you have to worry about accidentally shooting whatever’s behind it. It could be a tourist or a commercial airliner.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all solution, it’s better to have a mix of systems. For the recreational pilot who loses control of his machine, better firmware can keep it from hovering over prohibited areas like the White House. Sense-and-avoid radars can instruct pilots on what to avoid. None of this will stop a dedicated bad guy, but it’s enough to cut down on errant robots flying off course.

Let’s leave the jamming for the worst-case scenarios.

11 comments

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Most decent new drones are programmable, you give them a set of GPS coordinates to go to then return from and they will. So you’d have to “jam” the GPS system- highly unlikely.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Autonomous intelligent drones are just around the corner. Ones that fly by sight and guided by landmarks. Program in the path and they go and there is no jamming what needs no direction from external contact.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Signal jamming is effective but it’s just so passe and dull. Let’s make this a fun game instead.

Deploy mini radar-guided SAM batteries to every neighborhood or highrise roof-top in America. CIWS could also work since commercial drones generally don’t fly at that high an altitude. Anyway, these batteries are linked together via a wi-fi network and anyone with a smart device (phone, tablet, smartwatch, even laptops) can then download a Pentagon-created app to access and activate them as drones are spotted. Sorry but no Windows phone support. Of course the app would require some personal identification data to ensure that felons, children, foreign nationals (even naturalized citizens), liberals and other undesirables will be denied access. SSN, DOB, party registration, NRA membership status, employment/salary information, bank account data, health history, FBI criminal record, terrorism and no-fly watchlist, etc. Whatever the data requirement for access, just verify it against the NSA in real time since I’m sure their database is extremely accurate and up-to-date. Last but not least, successful kills would be tracked by the app and tallied up as part of a nationwide ranking system. Bonus points for collateral damage such as news choppers, debris falling on heads of pedestrians, building windows, etc. I have even thought up sothe me names for this game/app, “Battlefield: Skies Over America” or “Call of Duty: War On Drones” being two of them.

Oh and these batteries would be serviced by Lockheed, BAE, Raytheon contractors every month to ensure continued operation. See, this idea will even appease our profitability starved MI Complex too (they can’t rely on the JSF project for revenue forever)!

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

“Take several drones, and equip each with a few pounds of explosives, shrapnel and ball bearings. Then send them on a one-way kamikaze mission.”
That is effectively what the Japanese tried to do in WWII in the Pacific Northwest, sending small weather balloons with pyrotechnics to start fires.
Seems like the “drone” meme is just the latest fad to incite fear and money through name association. The article would not catch as many eyeballs if, instead of “drone” the author described the machines as “small R/C model aircraft” or “toy helicopters with cameras. By tainting by association a small quadcopter with a large military weapon, the public immediately associates a toy with death.

Posted by akwilco | Report as abusive

anti-drone drones could be investigated. when incoming drones are detected, rooftop drones scramble, intercept, grapple, and capture

Posted by ic555 | Report as abusive

Heck – just station Biden on the WH lawn with one of his favorite shotguns. Problem solved.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

“…only 3 percent are “very likely” to buy one this year.”

Only? So 10 million Americans are likely to buy a drone this year? That seems unlikely and I suspect the poll is flawed. But, if even close to true, that’s a lot of drones flying around out there.

Posted by tjblair | Report as abusive

I wish drones had never been invented, but as long as they’re available to the military and the police (two groups that are now indistinguishable in the US), they should be available to everyone else. People do not magically become more trustworthy when they accept government employment. Indeed, the opposite is typically the case.

Take a look at how many innocent people have been killed by governments (including that of the US) in the 20th Century. Consider the rampant police brutality, corruption, and unaccountability in the US today. Think about our “justice” system, which doesn’t hesitate to lock harmless people in barbaric prisons for victimless “crimes” like smoking weed, but allows holders of high public office to commit felonies without so much as a slap on the wrist (think of James Clapper’s perjury before Congress). Are you ready to trust the minions of such a tyrannical system with even MORE power over your life?

Most of my fellow Americans were very foolish and gullible to allow government to gain as much power as it already has. There needs to be a balance of power between the government and the People of this country. This is the central argument against gun control, and it is also my primary argument against drone control.

Posted by Heretic50 | Report as abusive

So we’re to believe that if only our “betters” in government owned drones, then we’d all be safer. Is that the idea? It sounds like the argument that if guns were only in the hands of the police and “our” military, then we’d all be so much more secure.

Well, millions and millions of innocent people who have been murdered by their own governments throughout history (many in the 20th Century alone) would disagree with the notion that being employed by a government makes a person more trustworthy and benevolent than any random person on the street. The opposite is true more often than not: power tends to corrupt, and those who are already corrupt often seek power.

Because of this, no person or group of people should ever be allowed to have a decisive monopoly on the use of force. This is the main argument against gun control, and it’s also the primary argument against “drone control.” If citizens are not allowed to have drones — and perhaps they should not — then domestic police should not be allowed to have them either, for ANY purpose. (Exceptions would undoubtedly lead to mission creep. Think of the Taser. Once intended to give police a non-lethal option with which to deal with dangerous people who would otherwise have to be shot — e.g., a madman wielding a knife — the Taser is now frequently used as a first resort against persons who could be easily controlled by lesser means. It’s also routinely used to summarily punish people for the “crime” of failing to grovel before the Blueshirts.)

With the exception of weapons that cause indiscriminate casualties — nukes, nerve gas, bioweapons, etc. — ALL weapons that are available to the government should be equally available to private citizens. The government is supposed to be the servant of the people, not the master. Since when is a servant allowed to be more powerful than his master? Yet that is the situation in which we find ourselves.

Posted by Heretic50 | Report as abusive

I wouldn’t worry too much about it. After a few drones are brought down in public areas and the lawyers and insurance companies get done, I think the idea will fade away. Imagine the public backlash if even a small drone came down in a school yard, or a public playground and injured or killed a child? The idea is an interesting one, but I’d say far from practical at this stage. I’ll simply get in my self-driving car and go to the store with it’s automated check-out machine when I need more tea.

Posted by The_Traveler | Report as abusive

Perhaps the scariest part of this technology is the low-cost. Imagine a swarm of drones at $100 each, programmed at a target loaded with miniature WMD, should send chills down the spine. This would mean sharpening of technologies in the areas of – EMP, lasers and other as counter measure.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive