Thursday, November 20, 2014

Small drone aircraft as a terrorist weapon?


I'm growing more and more concerned about the increasing number of near-misses between commercial airliners and private, so-called 'hobby' drones - small unmanned aerial vehicles that can be bought freely and operated by anyone with a smartphone.  Bloomberg reported today that there have been three recent sightings near JFK Airport in New York, and a quick Internet search turns up many reports of near-miss encounters between airliners and drones.

Simply forbidding the use of drones by civilians is a non-starter - there are too many of them already in private hands for that to work.  They're freely available at very low cost, too:  for example, Amazon.com has an entire 'drone store' listing dozens of models, many selling for well under $100.  Sure, the smaller models probably aren't capable of flying very high or very fast, and may not be big enough to cause serious damage to a big jet if they hit it;  but even minor damage will cause the air travel industry to throw a mega-fit.  It might also be very costly for airlines if an engine ingests a drone, because that will probably mean expensive repairs.  A turbofan engine as found on most modern airliners costs anywhere from $2 million to $15 million, depending on size and power, and spares and repairs are priced accordingly.

What worries me most is that terrorists can't be blind to the possibilities of this technology.  They must surely have among their members and sympathizers many individuals capable of controlling these small drones in flight.  What if they deliberately began launching them into the approach and landing patterns of major airports, seeking to cause a collision?  Even worse, what if they succeeded in seriously damaging or even destroying an airliner?  Can you imagine the panic among air travelers?  It'd shut down US air travel for a much longer period than 9/11, because there are literally thousands of these things out there, and no-one could be sure when one might not be launched from cover such as a clump of trees, or a city rooftop high above traffic, or something like that.  There'd be no way to trace it back to its launch point or locate the person controlling it.

As an avenue of attack, this looks to be both ridiculously simple and potentially catastrophic in its effects - and, from a terrorist perspective, turning drones against the USA in this way would be a very appropriate 'payback' for US drone airstrikes against them in the Middle East.  For that matter, some freely-available larger drones even advertise their cargo capacity (see, for example, this Volantex unit).  What if a terrorist were to load one up, not with a camera and batteries, but with a couple of pounds of Semtex and a contact detonator?  That way it could be directed against ground targets, not just against airliners;  and if launched at night it'd be as near to invisible as makes no difference, preventing many countermeasures from being effective.  What if one were to hit the windows of an airport control tower, or a fuel truck refilling a gas station's tanks, or a critical component of an electrical substation?

We've already seen Hezbollah and Hamas use drones in the Middle East, both armed and unarmed, ranging from small hobbyist models to professional military types.  What's to stop other terrorist groups using the same technology here in the USA, where it can be bought over the counter or by mail order?  I can't see any easy answers to this threat.  What say you, readers?  Any ideas?

Peter

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mutually Assured Destruction - follow the Israeli model and rain death down upon their homeland and those who provide them bases and support. If they wish to act like barbarians, then so be it; which Roman Imperator said "for every legionnaire, 500 of yours . . ."?

Sure, in the short term, it's self-defeating, but then so is doing what we're doing now.

Peripatetic Engineer said...

All they have to do is fly one into the engine air intake.

dave said...

"Stop pissing in the world's cornflakes?"

Not a popular idea, I know....

TheAxe said...

Is there a way to jam the drone controller's signal without screwing up the passenger jets' electronics?

RollsCanardly said...

I'm not sure why the recent concern about drones - RC aircraft that can have the same effect have been around for decades.

Anonymous said...

I think the concern with the modern drones is that they are easier to control (I.e. the smartphone comment above) and much more readily available. RC planes have long been the area of hobbyists and is a much more specialized way of flying then a drone is. Also a drone is much maneuverable. Think of the situation with trying to contact a plane if the drone is slightly off to the right or left you can 'slide' the drone to the side. A plane you cannot.

Tim D said...

Because terrorists could use X, therefore we must regulate / ban X.

Peter said...

@Tim D: If you recall, I said that it would serve no purpose to ban them because there are thousands already out there. There's no way to recall them all. What's needed is a better way to control their use in critical areas, and possibly to restrict the sale of drones that can be readily 'weaponized'. That won't be popular, I know, but if there's a better alternative, I'd love to hear it.

Jon said...

So, we need to make note of the time and place where Peter laid out this scenario, so when the pundits on national media natter on someday about "no one ever thought terrorists would use drones to bring down an airliner on U.S. soil" we can point to this post and say, "are ye daft?"

Eric Wilner said...

Not a totally new idea; I came up with a fairly detailed scenario for using a glorified model airplane as an assassination weapon back in the 90s, and long before that there was that episode of The Avengers with Psev and his radio-controlled models.
I'm guessing that a Kamikaze FPV model-plane attack on an airliner would be a little more difficult than it sounds, and that a failed attempt would draw unwelcome attention to the perpetrators.
A model plane in one engine on takeoff would be expensive to the airline, but I'm thinking airline pilots are trained to deal with that sort of thing (bird, UAV, same thing), and putting models through two engines at once would call for an amazing combination of skill and luck, or a moderately sophisticated guidance system that's not standard equipment on toys.
So, that would seem to be a highly disruptive activity but with little destructive potential.
On the other hand, a model carrying even a few ounces of high explosive could be quite a nasty weapon, especially for a group that has the funds to acquire a lot of them.
Further, some of the new hobby guidance systems could (with considerable work) be installed in actual light aircraft to create cruise missiles for those who don't have suicide pilots available.
There are some other interesting scenarios that don't bear discussing in public fora... no point giving away all the best evil schemes for free.

Peter said...

@Jon: As I said, Hamas and Hezbollah have already used armed civilian-type drones in the Middle East, and they're not the only ones to do so. This isn't a new idea. If it was, I'd have more sense than to mention it in public.

tweell said...

They're using cell phone frequencies, so an upgraded cell phone jammer would work.

Will said...

Eric:

I'm guessing you're younger than I am. "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." had an episode with a RC model plane attacking their HQ. 1960's.

Eric Wilner said...

Will: Maybe a little younger; I saw a few episodes of TMFU back in the day, and more in reruns, but somehow missed (or have forgotten) that one.
That Avengers episode is from 1965 (and, no, I didn't see it then - not until the many-th round of reruns).
Hmm. Seems "The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair" (I believe that's the one you mentioned) was also 1965. Must have been something in the water. Or the tea. Or maybe RC planes and spy shows were both in style that year.

smithgift said...

I don't see how jamming any frequencies would help: the potential terrorist would put the control program on the drone itself. Say, on a cellphone wired into the drone.

This isn't new, though. There's a website on how to make a $5000 cruise missile... from 2004.