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A “kamikaze” attack by swarming drones: nightmare or reality?

Euro-View: John Pyrgies on Swarmed Drone Attacks

John Pyrgies

Europe has paid a high cost to learn that our jihadist enemies can strike everywhere, at any time. But more is likely to come and we had better be prepared to face new attack scenarios. Among the worst would be the use of multiple drones.

Micro-drones are offered at very affordable prices in multimedia shops today. For example, the popular DJI Phantom 3, manufactured by China, costs only EUR 734 and can be purchased as easily as a console game. There is no identification of the buyer and, if paid with cash, there is no way to trace who bought it.

Moreover, such small remotely piloted aircrafts have no transponder that allows traffic controllers to identify what is flying through the air; indeed, there’s not even an identification tag that would allow authorities to determine its origin if found on the ground.

These devices are small and can be carried in a backpack. Most of their owners will use them for professional purposes such as aerial photography or for leisure, hopefully in compliance with the legislation that is being put in place across our European countries.

But what about their use for evil intent? Terrorists have at their disposal an aerial vehicle that can fly several hundred meters high, with an autonomy of 20 minutes and a range of more than 15 kilometres. A remote controller allows a drone’s pilot to steer it manually up to a distance of 2 kilometres.

Worse, their software can be manipulated for automatic attack. Even low-end “entry level” drones are configured such that their trajectory and final destination can be programmed like a sophisticated cruise missile. While their small size (i.e., 1.2 Kg for the Phantom 3) means the payload they can carry is only a few hundred grams, this cargo can be transported and landed anywhere with a precision of a few metres – bypassing all ground-based physical security perimeters.

Perhaps most worrisome, drones could also deploy as a “swarm” whose overall payload would be directly proportional to the number of units forming the swarm.

As I see it, a jihadist attack using a swarm of kamikaze micro-drones is a likely scenario that could unfold in Europe in the near future, for two main reasons.

First, drones are very symbolic. They are used daily by the US-led international coalition in their fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. For example, one of these drones “neutralised” Jihadi John, the UK citizen fighting for IS. Thus, jihadists will be tempted to retaliate using drones as their attack vector too.

In recent months illegal drone flights circled around sensitive military and nuclear sites in France and Belgium, even if the intentions of their rogue pilots (who were never identified or caught) remain unclear.

Second, legislation to control drones lags far behind their use. European laws and their adaptation at national level across the 28 EU nations are under way to prescribe measures such as the registration of pilots, identification of drones and “geo-fencing” to restrict the operating range of small drones. But this will take many several years to fully implement. In the meantime, micro-drones are pouring out of Europe’s shops.

As a response, European companies are developing solutions to counter swarm attacks, and some of these have already been deployed on the field. They make use of radar technologies to detect a rogue swarm, infrared cameras to trace their trajectory and GPS “spoofing” (deception) combined with radio frequency jamming techniques, to disrupt a drone’s navigation and control signals. This would force a swarm to land (or crash) in a secure place or return to their base.

But counter-techniques to disrupt a drone’s communication links would be useless if the drone is flying in ‘full autonomy’ mode where its trajectory is programmed and does not rely on GPS signals to navigate. In this case, there is no other way to neutralise it than to shoot it down, either with anti-aircraft guns whose fragmentation projectiles are specially designed for small, agile unmanned aircrafts or with laser beam-emitting guns that fry the drone’s electronic circuits. Another approach would be to apprehend an outlaw drone’s pilot by targeting the signals emitted by his radio-controller.

Drone suppliers need to be acutely aware of how their technology can be misused for terrorist purpose. It means they must ensure that the right countermeasures are designed and built in parallel with each innovation to prevent their misuse. For example, continuing improvements to the inertial measurement units of drones will allow them to navigate precisely without aid of a GPS signal. This will obviate all GPS spoofing techniques. Thus, new counter-measures will have to be developed against these potentially “weaponised” drones.

The European intelligence community should incorporate kamikaze drone swarm attacks scenarios into their threat model and to keep it up-to-date with the help of the drone community and vendors who sell anti-rogue drone solutions. Together, they must select and implement solutions that can prevent such attacks – or at least drastically limit the damage they could inflict on our society.

     John Pyrgies is founder of SkyAngels sprlu, a Belgian research company created in November 2014 that focuses on the study, launch and operation of UAV-based software services for first-responders, military users and the private sector. He can be reached at tel: (32) 476 40 11 72 and email: john.pyrgies@gmail.com.

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