The US government’s use of unmanned drones has been an open secret for some time. It has been over three years since President Obama admitted that multiple Americans have been killed in drone strikes overseas, and also since the FBI admitted to using surveillance drones to monitor US citizens. This year, the Pentagon has even admitted to using surveillance drones domestically, yet much about these programs and even their existence in many cases remains technically classified.
Smaller, non-lethal drones have caused a wide range of problems — from interfering in firefighting efforts to being used to smuggle contraband into prison yards — and for a while it was unclear whether you could legally shoot them down over your property. Earlier this year, however, the Federal Aviation Administration said that shooting down drones is just like shooting any other aircraft out of the sky — that is to say, it’s a federal crime.
Yet as America’s adversaries — including even ragtag non-state terrorist groups such as ISIS — begin building their own drones, we can expect to begin hearing more about counter-drone technology aimed at disabling, dispersing, or otherwise fighting back against the flying robots.
“An entire anti-drone industry is emerging that will arm anti-drone people with anti-drone technology,” ComputerWorld columnist Mike Elgan writes in a recent article. “These new tools will enable drone detection, tracking, identification, disabling, and even hacking and hijacking the drones as they fly.”
Elgan notes that while these technologies may be just now emerging into the mainstream, they’ve been quietly in development for significantly longer. “This burgeoning industry didn’t just fall from the sky,” he writes. “Like so many of our favorite tech gadgets, anti-drone devices will be consumerized versions of professional military and industrial gear.”
Elgan continues, giving some background on the development of anti-drone tech:
The anti-drone idea started years ago with the military. The big military contractors, like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Thales Group, Israel Aerospace Industries and Russia’s United Instrument Manufacturing Corporation (which focuses on countering U.S.-made military drones) were happy to develop expensive, powerful anti-drone technologies.
The U.S. Army is testing Raytheon’s Phaser, a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) device that can shut down an entire drone swarm with a single blast. It’s essentially a microwave radiation transmitter mounted on a 20-foot shipping container. I want one, but it’s probably out of my league.
Trouble is, big-iron solutions are right for the airplane-sized drones used by major military powers. But insurgents, terrorists and criminals are increasingly flying smaller, consumer-sized drones for delivering bombs. And these smaller drones need a smaller solution.
Elgan notes several anti-drone systems presently under development, including military technologies such as “a truck-mounted laser beam” to shoot down drones and a program that “hacks drones by injecting packets of code into the radio protocol used for communication between the drone and its handheld controller,” enabling the user to take control of a target drone. He also discusses “drone zappers” used by Denver International Airport and a “space gun” signal jammer for drones that is currently illegal to use in the U.S.
Indeed, the legality of many of these anti-drone technologies is not entirely clear. Nor is it apparent whether any of these specific systems are behind the mysterious “geofences” that, for example, “some drone enthusiasts believe Silicon Valley companies may be quietly working to install,” according to an article in the San Jose Mercury News, which have redirected drones, causing them to crash into San Francisco Bay. That article also notes that “much of the anti-drone technology is being developed in secrecy for the government, so it’s hard to know exactly what tools companies might be using to stop drones.”
If shooting down a drone is the legal equivalent of shooting down an airplane, though, the capabilities of some of these tools — such as those that let a hacker do things like remotely take control of a drone — would logically equate to enabling the somewhat serious crime and national security problem of airplane hijacking. Nevertheless, the hackability of drones — including of a model that costs more than $30,000 and is used by U.S. police departments, has been demonstrated.
Clearly, drone manufacturers have a lot of work to do in securing their products — a particularly important concern given that major uses of drones are for surveillance and waging warfare, activities that tend to inspire determined resistance. Yet this security gap is not unique to the drone industry. Rather it can easily be viewed as a facet of the broader problem of inadequate security considerations taken into account in the design of “Internet of Things” devices. Once hyped as the next big thing in tech, the ongoing clamor over the lack of security of the so-called IoT seems to grow louder by the day.
Indeed, as anti-drone technologies develop, even if new models of drones are made more secure, countless copies of earlier versions have already been released, and will likely remain hackable as ever. As with so many areas of espionage and military technology, the U.S. has certainly led the way in the drone arms race, and appears to be leading the anti-drone race as well.
But perhaps if we focused less on ways of weaponizing our scientific knowledge, and more on using it for productive rather than destructive purposes, we could avoid not only some of the political fallout of raining death from the sky on civilians, but the security headaches of having hijackable drones swarming the skies as well. If we gave more thought to whether we should make certain weapons and technologies to begin with, rather than just making them as soon as we feel that we possibly can, perhaps we’d find ourselves avoiding some of the pitfalls associated with developing such newfangled weapons of war.