A UK research group has warned that commercial drones represent a terrorist threat and new laws should limit what payload they can carry.
The Remote Control Project, run by the Oxford Research Group, also wants the government to fund the development of military-style lasers to shoot drones down and the creation of jamming and early-warning systems to be used by police.
The alarming report, titled The hostile use of drones by non-state actors against British targets, contains very little in the way of actual evidence of the use of drones by violent groups. The evidence it does provide does not justify its extreme conclusions and recommendations. "Fortunately, there have so far been very few instances of individual terrorists using drones to undertake attacks," it reads.
There have been examples dating back to 2004 in the use of drones by Hezbollah in Lebanon, but they have been used for intelligence gathering rather than actual attacks. Notably however, in September 2014, the Fars News Agency reported that Hezbollah had carried out a successful drone strike, killing 23 Syrian "rebels." The claim has not been confirmed by others.
The report's more recent examples concern the Islamic State but also note that the drones have been used only for gathering intelligence in particular areas and have not resulted in any actual attacks.
Outside of unstable countries and war zones, the report gives the examples of the White House drone crash last year, a September 2011 case where a man was arrested for flying drones with explosives near the Pentagon and Capitol, a drone landing at Heathrow in 2014, and the case where a drone carrying a bottle of radioactive sand from Fukushima landed at the office of the Japanese prime minister in April 2015.
Not so much
There are multiple reasons why commercial drones – as opposed to the military drones that have been used for some time by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq – do not represent an actual threat to UK lives, many of them covered within the report.
The most significant is the fact that commercial drones almost always require line-of-sight, so the operator cannot be very far away – somewhat limiting the risk. They are also run off batteries, which severely limits their flight time. Commercial drones are not very powerful or resilient – only the high-end drones for example are capable of handling rain or wind well. And then of course there is the issue of payload – the ability to carry anything that could pose a physical threat. The report notes that people could retrofit weather hardening but "the extra weight would likely reduce flight time and payload capacity unless power or the number of rotors was also increased."
The researchers looked at over 200 commercial drones and noted they have an average flight time of 18 minutes, an average range of 1,400 meters and median price of $600 (£390). In other words, commercial drones are only really a dangerous prospect if a terrorist group builds a completely new drone.
Governments and aviation authorities are taking the potential risk of drones seriously however, although not necessarily over fear of terrorism. The FAA in the US recently announced the mandatory registration of all drones over 250 grams (although the practicality or even legality of that rule is still under question). A UK select committee this time last year also recommended mandatory registration of civilian drones, but nothing has happened yet.
What rules do exist focus on restricting drones to certain heights and spaces (i.e., not near airfields or in populated places) and requiring line-of-sight operation.
Despite providing a lengthy list of reasons why drones do not actually represent a terrorist threat, the report however recommends that the UK government treat them as if they did.
It proposes new regulations that would limit commercially available drones, particularly their ability to carry heavy items, but also range, speed, weatherproofing and so on.
It also suggests that manufacturers be required to install the GPS coordinates of government-mandated no-fly zones and have drones automatically shut down if they approach such a space. And it suggests stricter registration requirements for the more high-end drones that could theoretically pose a risk.
Most notable, however, is the report's recommendation that the government invest in the development of military-style lasers and drone-tracking systems. And it argues that police forces should be funded and specialist units set up to deal with the terrorist drone menace that doesn't exist.
This would cover the cost of early warning systems, radio frequency jammers and GPS jammers – noting that existing laws over the use of such jammers would need to be relaxed for that to happen. It doesn't mention the fact that those restrictions exist over security concerns, however.
In short: panic! The drones are coming! Although they're not. ®