Wednesday, October 25, 2017

About drones and terrorists - it's happening right now

A few weeks ago, I repeated warnings from several quarters that terrorists had used, and were planning to use, hobby-style drones as weapons of terror.

My article was debunked by some who thought the idea wholly far-fetched.  One such response may be found here.

Well, guess what?  Mexican drug cartels are doing it right now!

The hobby drone referred to at that link, the 3DR Solo Quadcopter, costs only $199 from online retailers such as  It can carry a payload of 1.1 pounds, according to its user manual - and Mexican drug cartels were obviously using that capability to the full.

Sorry.  Hobbyist drones CAN be "weaponized".  ISIS has done it in the Middle East, and now Mexican drug cartels are doing it.

I rest my case.



LindaG said...

But you won't hear any cries of drone control. And you probably won't have to register them or pass a background check.

Aesop said...

1.1 pounds.
The weight of a US M67 frag grenade, with the pin pulled, helpfully snuggled into a cut open half of a soda can.

Rig a tip over/release mechanism, drop from 390' AGL up and it detonates on impact. A bit higher gets you an airburst.

A few of those, and you can beat the Vegas shooter's tally in seconds.
We won't even talk about some whackjob terrorist waiting for a press conference on the South Lawn of the White House. Or some future Inauguration on the Capitol steps. The Secret Service has to be sweating bullets the size of goose eggs about now just thinking about the security nightmare.

Do one with 1# of thermite and a fuze, and exactly as I noted in comments at the earlier post and you can take out a fully-fueled jetliner queued up for takeoff.

Or a space launch.

Or an armed strategic bomber back on nuclear alert (like we're phasing back in, right this minute).

Do the same thing over a fuel tank, and you get one helluva fire.

Do half a dozen in the Wilmington/San Pedro refinery farms south of L.A., and you start more fires in five minutes than the county could put out in five days.

Freeways at rush hour? Times 10 or 20 locations at interchanges?

How about someone taking out a few power distribution station transformers, and wiping an electrical grid off the map?

Do it at the Sabine Pass LNG terminal (or wait for Long Beach CA or Cove Point MD LNG terminals to open up in a couple of years), and you unleash the equivalent of an atomic blast.

For the cost of $200 of drone, and $50 of chemical components, using a cell phone trigger that's been in use in SWAsia since before 2002.

We won't even talk about what a pound or so of C-4 would do. Let alone several dozens of them. (World Series? Superbowl? Malls at Christmas? Wall Street at the opening bell? A handful of FAA Center air traffic control buildings, simultaneously? The imagination boggles.)

So where's the genius that assured us a coupla weeks back that the carrying capacity on these things was measured in grams?
Yeah, turns out that would be 500 grams, to be precise.

And the new price of a precision-guided munition has been dropped to $200, available on Amazon.

Sleep tight.

RobC said...

"And the new price of a precision-guided munition has been dropped to $200, available on Amazon.

Sleep tight."
Quote of the week material right there Aesop...

Sadly true too. :-(

Dirk said...

The only surprise here, at least to me, is that it hasn't happened sooner, or more frequently. Aesop just terrified the crap out of me...I'd considered a few of those scenarios, but he went far beyond the thoughts I'd had on the subject.

Andrew said...

A pound of metal rods, or gutter spikes, flown into any modern jet engine when engine is running at any reasonable speed, would stop said engine rather rapidly. In flight, at take-off or landing, the damage could be rather catastrophic. (Yeah, yeah, planes supposed to take off/land with one engine, yada, yada, but you ask any prop-head and they'll tell you the transition from ground to air or air to ground is always the scariest.)

A pound of chemicals dropped into a water source could shut down a water plant, or worse.

A pound of the right chemicals, spread properly, could destroy a farm.

A pound of roofing nails, the ones with the square metal plate at the head, dropped on a highway...

A pound of poo dropped in the right place...

A pound of very lightweight metal (or metallicized, like mylar) strips dropped as chaff at the right place and time...

These aren't new ideas from the wonder minds of ISIS. These are thoughts I, and some of my friends, had for use of RC aircraft in the late '70s/early 80's, for a roleplaying game called 'Top Secret' (a game about spies.) (I won't talk about the plot to actually set off a fuel-air explosive in the flight path of the local air-force base. We got so far as to test the homemade explosives before common sense took over. Really. Not kidding. We were, stupid kids that we were, gonna do it. Using black powder, a 55 gallon drum, and lots of gas, but that's kinda off-topic...)

There was even some kid's spy movie where the children used dart-firing Spitfire RC aircraft to pop the bad guys' tires, made somewhere, again, late '70's, early '80's.

All of these ideas were possible using '70's tech with off-the-shelf hardware available at hobby stores for under $500.00 at the time. Maybe a bit more, okay, a lot more for heavier payloads or extended range.

And then there was the time the local rocket club 'shot' down an Air Force Jolly Green (with parajumpers in it) with Estes rockets. Again, late '70's tech. (You never realize how fast you can pedal your bike when you see a bunch of pissed off PJs staring at you from their helo that you just 'accidentally' hit...)

If a bunch of stupid teenagers could think up, plan and actually execute some of these 'idiotic' attacks, in the '70's, why can't some college educated follower of the 'Religion of Peace(or is it Religion of Pieces?) do the same thing with much more powerful, cheaper, and available 'hobby' hardware that is affordable today?

(Sometimes it scares me how twisted my thoughts were as a kid. Sure, we all had thoughts of killing our classmates, shooting up the school, setting off a bomb at the football game, but we never followed through with such evil thoughts.)

Aesop said...

I'm just getting warmed up, Dirk.

I'm not Aesop, I'm now Dirkadirka, and SoCal is my new jihadi playground.

I have Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium, the Coliseum, the Rose Bowl, Disneyland, Six Flags, Universal Studios, several other amusement parks, a major international harbor, five major airports, one to two dozen huge shopping malls, ten reservoirs, multiple refineries, chemical plants, a subway, a railroad freight national nexus, an ATC center, the Pacific Stock Exchange, several federal buildings, dozens of interstate freeway interchanges, half a dozen major military installations, a nuclear weapons storage depot, a good chunk of the Pacific Fleet, chemical plants, bridges, offshore oil production platforms, arriving supertankers, and about twenty million people to play with, all within a tank of gas of where I'm sitting.

And for $200@, plus a pound of C-4, a blasting cap, and a burner phone, I can start playing with them at my leisure singly, or in multiple places at the same time. And get away to do it again and again and again...

I could start at midnight, load up a van, do one attack an hour, and by noon tomorrow, I could have 20M people fleeing to all points of the compass in sheer terror.

And the next day, do it again in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area.

And on Friday, guys do it in NYFC, Chicago, Washington DC, Houston, Seattle, Miami, Honolulu, or anywhere else they feel like it.

For less money than I had in my bank account last month, plus the explosives (which can be had in several states, with just a driver's license and the cash), even if my name was really Dirkadirka.

It was funny watching the USAF put a 1000# LGB into a guy's truck window in Baghdad circa 1991.

It will be a lot less funny watching someone take out the targets I mentioned hereabouts with hobby drones, because no one thought of that until now.

And that's before they start dropping anthrax spores, or ricin, or homebrew Sarin, over school playgrounds at recess, and high school football bleachers at night games, because they're homicidal soulless jihadi SOBs.

Maybe even one or ten of the 150 or so Afghani soldiers here in the US who went on weekend leave during training, and never came back to work.

Now how scared are you?

Me, I'm looking for a deep, deep cave.

TheOtherSean said...

"But you won't hear any cries of drone control. And you probably won't have to register them or pass a background check."

Actually you will. Drones annoy a lot of people, and some can be rather vocal about it. I've heard calls to ban them entirely, calls to allow people to shoot them down when the drones stray over their property, calls to allow them only with training and not allow them to overfly property, calls to require real pilot-level licensing for their operators, calls to ban them over publish property, etc. I've seen people threaten the operators for overflying them or their bikini-clad female relatives. A friend bashed one out of the sky with his walking stick when one buzzed him on a hiking trail.

Andrew said...


Not to mention the potential to start some really nasty 'urban opportunist support group' fights. Setting the city on fire by 'pulling the pin' on gang vs gang violence, watching whole neighborhoods turn to ashes. Forests and gas depots are not the only things that burn...

I would hate to be a professional 'security' or 'threat assessment' officer right now. Talk about a stressful job!

Eric Wilner said...


A pound of talcum powder on the freeway just as rush hour is starting: how long to determine that it's harmless, and re-open the road?

A pound of talcum powder on a crowd in a confined space: how many evacuation-related casualties?

And you don't even need a drone for those - just a suspicious-looking means of dispersal. Which could be some wino you pay to do a stunt, ostensibly for a TV show. But using a drone would make it extra alarming at the moment.

Glen Filthie said...

LOL. Pbbfbfbfbfbfffffffttt!!!! DEATH FROM ABOVE!!!!

The kind a guys that will use this as a weapon are as liable to blow themselves up as their foes. This would be the weapon of choice for guys like Sideshow Bob or possibly Wile E Coyote.

The quad MAY lift the load but it won't fly well. Couple that with cheap Chinese components (my quad cost easily twice that to build) and suffice it to say I am not worried. For two hundred bucks that thing will almost certainly be restricted to line of sight. The reliability on this thing is going to be laughable. Even if this is true - and given the media we have these days, I will have to see it to believe it - Larry Vickers established the real threat potential of grenade sized munitions. I'm surprised at how easily you boys are being panicked; the last election should have confirmed your media's integrity or lack thereof long ago.

But it does raise some very intriguing possibilities. A grenade may or may not be possible...but what a novel way to egg somebody like world famous adventurer and novelist - WL Emery - as he sits, sipping his drink at a posh sidewalk bistro. Or with a heavy lift machine - I could drop a whole carton of eggs on Aesop! It would be worth the beating I would get for my troubles! :)

However now that I think on it - a real scenario comes to mind. A small drone with a small incendiary device COULD wreak havoc in an environment like a refinery where explosive gases can accumulate - provided you can detonate it.

Andrew said...


What part of 'Suicide Cult' don't you understand? Sure, the pilot might get slabbed during the op or afterwards, but to these slope-heads, that is a feature, not a problem. Just because you value your life doesn't mean that they value theirs. And with these death-cultists, a few dead and a lot more scared is a good thing, as the more they panic our stupid media, citizens, politicians, well, that is a bonus for them.

It is not the media that is the most worried about this. Credible sources have been worried about this for years, just now the media sheep have finally heard the howling.

Not to mention, both fixed wing and quad-copter 'drones' or RC aircraft have been used to drop munitions in Syria and Iraq. And I and my teenage friends were doing very destructive and dangerous things back in the '70s with less sophisticated gear than is available at Wal-Mart today. Just because your crappy copter can't lift shit doesn't mean that someone else's won't.

'Drones' are a fun toy, like all RC toys. Doesn't mean that they are not a credible threat in the hands of terrorists.

wheels said...

Around 15 years ago, the boss of the company I worked for got into R/C airplane flying as a hobby. As we were a company that made embedded computer boards, he took it upon himself to design a few microcontroller boards to be used as autopilots and for other purposes (such as first-person video with status overlays for speed, course, and so on), and started working to spin off an autopilot company.

It got to where the autopilots could follow a programmed course through several GPS waypoints. There were I/O lines that allowed you to control cameras and servos, also. Never really went anywhere - the spinoff company only lasted a few years, although it did come in second on a contract to develop something for the USMC, and there was a group of ranchers who used the autopilots for drones patrolling the Mexican border.

In any case, our office manager received a certificate from the FBI because she'd reported a suspicious purchaser, and it led to a conviction for attempted terrorism, or something similar. The purchaser was a Muslim who, IIRC, was part of a group that planned to use several of the autopilots to have R/C aircraft travel to various locations and release payloads of some sort. We never got much in the way of details.

Not as maneuverable as a quadcopter, true, but a larger payload and potentially higher speed and longer range.

Glen Filthie said...

I'm going to post a formal 'rebuttal' of sorts on my own blog, fellas. Drop by if you're so inclined.

Anonymous said...

Anything can be weaponized. Look up 'IRA barrack buster'.

Drones and R/C aircraft can lift a lot more than 1.1lbs, there are some that can carry 25lbs. My nightmare scenario would be a drone or R/C aircraft set up to capture the glide slope and localizer and fly up towards the airplane that is following the glide slope down to the runway. Or a guidance system that locks in on the >1,000watt landing lights of the airliner.


Aesop said...

Have fun whistling past the graveyard.

Being shown to be factually wrong is one thing; a simple "Oops! My bad!" would suffice.
But then doubling down on it afterwards...that's its own reward.

Baghdad Bob Lives.

Tierlieb said...

In a way, this debate reminds me of the panic regarding 3d printers, you know, those evil things for printing guns after downloading the schematics from the internet:

3D printers cannot do anything that any serious machining hobbyist couldn't do in the last 70 years or so. They just make it easier, because you do not have to figure out lathes and mills.

Similarly, drones cannot do anything that a serious RC hobbyist couldn't do, well, say 30 years ago. They just require less learning about servos, motors, engines, frequencies and aerodynamics.

It is all about how easy things become, not about whether they are possible at all.

Drones provide only the delivery system for a bomb. The bomb itself is tricky to make or get outside of a combat zone. Inside a combat zone, I'd be worried, yes. And I expect some low-tech answer to that like more shotguns with birdshot being carried around (a flashback to WWI and wingshooting grenades above trenches).

Outside of a combat zone, I think there are a lot more horrible scenarios that are easier than finding a bomb that works properly on a drone. Hell, the most evil scenario that I ever learned about was simply closing all exits of a building with basic tools like wedges and bike chains and then throwing some firebombs inside... you cannot legislate against that. And therefore, worrying about more complex stuff seems pretty pointless.

Aesop said...

"tricky to make"???
In what universe?

I can make napalm from ingredients I can buy myself on a 15 minute trip, or have the components for a foolproof thermite bomb shipped to my door by Amazon in a day, assuming I was too lazy to source it locally, or make them myself. (Hint: thermite is rust (iron oxide), and aluminum flakes. Anyone with iron or steel anything, a bucket of water, a grinder, and aluminum stock could make it at home and do just fine. In a pinch you could shred soda cans with tin snips, and still probably succeed.)
"Working properly" is a matter of 15 minutes work with a soldering iron, etc. I won't detail it beyond that, but I'm minimally conversant, and I could do it in an afternoon, five different way, off the top of my head.
But having a device that could deliver it, with precision HD camera targeting guidance in real time, for the princely sum of $200?

RC was strictly line-of-sight, and required actual flight competence. A hobby level drone like DR3 or the Phantom series is limited only by R/T power, cell phone coverage, and battery endurance, and will literally engage in self-stabilized flight, at your whim, out of the box.

That's their whole selling point: no longer do you need to spend months and thousands of dollars, only to buy/build/fly/crash, again and again, until one day you finally crack the code.

It's now buy, unbox, charge battery, fly; flawlessly and repeatably.

Anyone that thinks this isn't an order of magnitude of change doesn't know what they don't know, and is the mayor of Amity, promising to take this seriously only right after the shark bites him in the @$$.

When someone pulls a Vegas on the World Series, the Superbowl, or an Inauguration, it'll be a wee bit late to note "Oh yeah, gee, now I see your point."

All technology comes at a price.
(Don't believe me, take a look at James Burke's The Axemaker's Gift. That'd be the guy who wrote and narrated PBS' The Day The Universe Changed, Connections, and Connections II. He's kind of a big deal on the subject of technology.)

The price for drones that let people fly over Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, and through the fireworks at Disneyland getting great 4K video for only two C-notes, is that it will also let them do all the terrible things I suggested, for the exact same cost.

And if they get their hands on chemical or biological agents, and use the same delivery device, they will have made the entire nuclear programs of the Norks and Iran moot, for the same cost as a coach ticket from anywhere to Vegas, and limited solely by how much of what agent they have on hand.

And there's nothing you, me, or all of the king's horses and all the king's men can do to put Humpty Dumpty back together again once that happens.

The miracle is that they haven't done it already, but you can't expect people that want to kill us to stay that ignorant indefinitely. But tiptoeing past the tiger will not make it disappear.

Tal Hartsfeld said...

ANYTHING can be subverted.