Commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones as we like to call them, are spreading like wildfire. Nearly four years have passed since the DJI Phantom took the industry by storm with it’s camera-mounted, easily controllable commercial drone. We see it everywhere: weddings, TVC shoots and in the hands of the hobbyist who has the extra cash to spare. The Phantom is just one of thousands of commercially available drones, which vary from a hundred dollars (Rs. 10,000) to several thousand dollars, depending on what you require. The dangers of these mechanical devices are well-noted. Commercial drones can prove dangerous to traffic, skyscrapers and airplanes if proper laws are not established to monitor their use. However, as an increasing number of academic studies have begun to establish, the real problem of commercial drones may not be their use by hobbyists or commercial users, but by criminals and terrorists who may get their hands on them.
There are several reasons potential terrorists and criminals may want to utilize this new technology. Battlefield UAVs have been called a disruptive technology, with the potential to change warfare as we know it. Their commercial counterparts may not be as powerful and capable, but the basic characteristics surprisingly remain the same.
The rational terrorist theory
The rational terrorist posits that terrorists aren’t as irrational and random in their mode of attack as much as we usually think: their decisions are based on well-plotted out utilitarian terms. Terrorists, therefore, tend to choose modes of attack that require minimum input and risk in terms of cost and human loss while reaping the maximum results. Commercial UAVs posit several advantages for such nefarious activities. Firstly, there are cheap. A commercial drone can be purchased for less than one hundred thousand rupees, which is the cost of a new iPhone 7.
Secondly, they have several technological advantages. These drones provide you a remarkable level of stealth. The DJI Phantom can be operated from 3.1 miles away, making it virtually impossible to track down the attacker in time. These drones also provide sharp video input, so the drone can be operated to exact precision as per the requirement of the user.
Thirdly, these drones hold the potential to save millions of dollars that are spent by terrorist organizations in training and mind-washing young children for potential suicide attacks. The only loss to the criminal in a drone attack is the drone itself and the payload.
What threat do they hold?
You may be wondering – what threat does a small 8-kg commercial drone posit? After all, no one is going to launch a 2-tonne warhead from such a vehicle. While that may be true, we often forget that terrorists often use increasingly creative devices in causing mayhem
Chemical and biological weapons, for example, can be easily attached to a commercial UAV through an attachable release switch. As Thomas Ridd notes, the use of such a vehicle on an open crowd can be absolutely devastating. The reason for this is that only a small payload of chemical and biological weapons is enough to cause mass devastation, thereby making them a critical threat to civil security.
Putting a stop to the flyers
Drones will continue to get smaller, more powerful and technologically advanced and of course, cheaper. This will not occur over a matter of decades; it is happening right now, month after month. A lot of things will need to be done to deter any large scale mishaps from occurring.
The first action will be to adopt a long term policy with regards to the purchasing, usage and monitoring of commercial UAVs. The UK has successfully implemented it’s policy after several years of criticism for it’s negligence – and other countries are also working diligently to catch up to the unprecedented increase in commercial drone use. Controlling and monitoring works primarily through the tagging of drones during import as well as the licensing of all drones before they may be used by hobbyists and commercial operators. Whereas it may be difficult to monitor kit assembled aircraft, these also present less of a danger as it’s significantly more difficult in assembling and operating a kit aircraft that posits a tangible threat.
The second action will be to collaborate with academia and technology companies in coming up with deterrence techniques to counter such potential acts of terrorism. One line of investigation may be through electronic warfare: using one of several modes of attack in debilitating commercial UAVs or making them easily trackable. Any such devices must be widely available to law enforcement agencies throughout the country, considering the wide spread of criminal and terrorist activities in the past.