What stops terrorists from buying drones? E-mail
Written by James D. Ponzi   

On May 15, 2012, 9News.com reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was investigating a “mysterious flying object over Denver” which nearly collided with a Cessna Citation flying at 8,000 feet over Cherry Creek.  This object was in controlled airspace and has not yet been identified, but officials speculated that it was a drone, a remote controlled aircraft, or a large bird.  FAA regulations restrict drones to an altitude of 400 feet since manned aircraft never fly below 1000 feet.  Apparently, if this was a drone, the “pilot” did not follow the rules.

Also in 2012, Israel officials reported shooting down a drone that had crossed deep into Israeli airspace from the Mediterranean Sea.  This incident “marked the first time in at least six years that a hostile aircraft penetrated Israel’s airspace” (Denver Post, 2012).  Israeli officials said it was not clear who launched the vehicle; but that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah was suspected since they have a history of sending drones into Israeli airspace.

On December 12, 2011, President Obama confirmed that a U.S. drone was in Iranian hands.  The president promptly said he would ask the Iranian government to return the spy plane.  A year later, Iran’s Republican Guard said it decoded all data from the CIA’s RQ170 Sentinel spy drone captured last year.   The Guard said it was done without any help from Russia or China.  Iran now says it will reverse-engineer the drone and build its own version (New York Daily News, 2012).  Last week, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard claimed it captured another U.S. drone after it entered Iranian airspace over the Persian Gulf.  An image was shown on state TV of what the guard said was a Boeing-designed ScanEagle drone.

In February of 2012, The New York Times reported that President Obama signed a bill into law that compels the FAA to allow drones to be used for commercial endeavors such as selling real estate, dusting crops, monitoring oil spills, or shooting Hollywood films.  In addition, President Obama plans to arm drones provided to Italy (WSJ, 2012).  Local police and emergency agencies would also be free to send up their own drones under that new bill.  With the winding-down of the war in Afghanistan, manufacturers have been searching out opportunities for drone sales in the United States. 

At present there are 25 colleges and universities along with a number of private corporations working on perfecting the next generation of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (U.S. News and World Report, 2012). The drone market is projected to be $5.9 million immediately and is expected to double in the next 10 years.  The cost of drones can range from millions of dollars to as little as $300 for one that can be piloted with an iPhone (New York Times, 2012).

Speaking of college and university research on drones, how about this one?  After the U.S. drone was downed by Iran, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) challenged scientists at the University of Texas at Austin to hack into a drone and take over its command.  With just around $1000 in parts, the scientists took control of a UAV owned by the college while DHS watched.  The team was able to “spoof” the GPS system on board the drone.  Spoofing involves mimicking the actual signals sent to the GPS aboard the drone and then tricking the system into following a new set of commands. 

Professor Todd Humphreys, the leader of the team, said that the $1000 spoofer that they built was one of the most advanced ever designed (http://rt.com/usa/news/texas-1000-us-government-906/).  So despite the fact that we don’t know for sure what the object was over Denver or how many drones our enemies possess, consider the following scenarios.  
    

A drone is loaded with a couple of pounds of semtex or C-4 and placed into a predictable heading or altitude such as a landing or take-off pattern at Denver International Airport (DIA).  The drone is programmed to hover and circle in that pattern until it eventually collides with a commercial airliner.  If the drone were put up at night, it would be hard to see with the naked eye, and any noise it might make would be masked by normal airport noise.  Think of the same drone flying into Invesco Field during a Bronco football game or Coors Field during a Colorado Rockies game.  How about into a local elementary school playground?  

These options are only limited by the imagination of the buyers, builders and controllers of drones or UAVs.  Impossible you say because all security forces would need to do is disrupt the drone’s digital guidance system by providing “pulses” of extreme power on known transmit or receive frequencies like “Duke” does in Iraq and Afghanistan.  True, but the caveat here is that security must know it is out there. 

In addition, its disruption range is limited by physical obstructions and if the signals are too strong, other things also get disrupted like cell networks, guidance systems and satellite television.  Let’s review some of the facts about UAVs that make them ripe for possible terrorist use.

According to the FAA, a UAV “may have a wingspan as large as a Boeing 737 or smaller than a radio-controlled model airplane.”  A “pilot” on the ground controls the UAV.  Google “large remote controlled airplanes” and you will be directed to a plethora of hobbyists on YouTube flying these remote controlled planes in all different shapes and sizes.  One company is currently sold out of all aircraft over 96 inches, and terrorists do not need a flight school in Florida to learn how to fly them. 

In October of 2012, American Cop Magazine ran an article on the Datron Scout, developed by a company in Vista, California.  The Datron Scout can fly 1.86 miles, or up to 20 minutes on a battery charge, and custom payload systems can be developed for its specific use.  The Scout’s primarily use is for law enforcement because it costs around $90 thousand instead of the $2 million price tag that a helicopter equipped for law enforcement use commands.  As we all know, profit is the bottom line for most private companies. 

It would not be impossible for terrorists to get their hands on these UAVs simply by using a legitimate company as a front.

In another article, Drone Technology Reaches New Heights, Dr. Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute, and author of the books Wired for War, stated that the military has over 7,500 drones currently in use. 

Singer also stated that there are “at least 45 other nations building, buying and using military robotics.”  These nations include Russia, China and Pakistan.  Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired commenting on the number of drones in military use, stated that there are twice that many drones in the amateur world.  He said, “There are tens of thousands of regular folks out there who are building, flying and experimenting with drones right now.”  The average price of these drones is $600 to $700 dollars (NPR, Science Friday; diydrones.com).

So, based on these facts are we preparing for terrorist use of UAVs?  Since I am not privy to classified documents, the short answer is that I don’t know.  I certainly don’t see many articles on the possibility of terrorists using drones in open source material, which is where 80% of U.S. intelligence is gathered. What I do see are many articles on the controversy of whether drone use is an invasion of privacy.  This argument ranges from drones “peeking over fences” to law enforcement locating drug fields hidden from normal surveillance techniques.  Another controversy involves law enforcement deploying weapons from UAVs, and how the American public is not likely to accept the use of such weapons that kill from a distance (American Police Beat, 2012).  

It seems to me that we have more to worry about than the use of drones by hobbyists and law enforcement.  The FAA predicts 30,000 drones in domestic use over America’s airspace by the end of the decade (American Police Beat, 2012).  This reminds me of the old westerns where a cowboy sitting around a campfire says “it sure is quiet out there,” and another cowboy says “sure is, maybe too quiet.”  Such a conversation usually preceded an all-out attack.  The same thing happened just before 9/11 when some analysts had “feelings,” but weren’t sounding the proper alarm.  The cost of using drones in a terror attack would be small compared to the widespread panic the first attack would generate? 

In addition, drones eliminate the need for martyrs and significantly lessen the chance of arrest.  These robotics are currently being built, sold, and stolen.  It is just a matter of time before some politician is in the news trying to explain how they all had a “feeling” more should have been done about terrorist use of drones.  How many lives will be lost this time?

James Ponzi is an Assistant Professor of Criminology at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.  He has 35 years of law enforcement experience with the Denver Police Department and is nearing completion of his Doctorate in Homeland Security at Northcentral University.       
    
  


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