Drone 'swarm' buzzed off FBI surveillance bods, says tech bloke

UAV arms race with drug lords is upon us

An American government employee has publicly claimed that a criminal gang used a swarm of drones to fend off an FBI raid.

Joe Mazel, the chief of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation’s operational technology law unit, told the AUVSI Xponential conference in Colorado, USA, that a hostage rescue team were driven out of an observation post after a series of “high-speed low passes” by small drones.

Though Mazel refused to say when or where this incident took place, as reported by American website Defense One, he did say in general terms that criminal gangs are starting to exploit the potential of small camera-equipped drones for counter-surveillance operations.

“They had people fly their own drones up and put the footage to YouTube so that the guys who had cellular access could go to the YouTube site and pull down the video,” said Mazel.

It seems unlikely that a true drone swarm was involved; the term generally refers to a number of small remote-controlled aircraft under the control of a single operator. Given the current state of consumer drone tech, it is more likely, in the scenario Mazel described, that two or three drones were being flown by a number of people who probably buzzed the general area of the FBI observation post enough times for its occupants to decide they had been spotted and to withdraw as a result.

As entertaining as the image of a fiendish swarm of NarcoDrones™ chasing terrorised g-men across the landscape is, it's very unlikely to have happened that way.

Historically, counter-surveillance was something only within the grasp of State-backed actors; typically it relies on expensively-trained human agents covertly following suspects around and making notes of what they got up to, or in higher-profile cases, the deployment of helicopters or other aircraft fitted with surveillance equipment.

Yet with drones mounting HD cameras and livestream-capable radios becoming ever more inexpensive, it appears that criminal gangs have realised they can employ law enforcement-style tactics for their own ends – giving rise to an unwelcome levelling of the playing field and a potential drone arms race.

As Defense One identified, small drones are increasingly being used by American gangs in scenarios that were exclusively the preserve of military and paramilitary State agencies: determining patterns-of-life (how often does the security guard do his rounds?), spotting gaps in security, and direct surveillance of potential targets of interest, such as police informers.

Such tactics do not appear to have emerged in the UK just yet, though drone-enabled drug dropoffs have become A Thing, as the cool kids say.

British military blog Think Defence has a page focused on the various uses of drones in conflict zones, with the occasional mention of border control/law enforcement. ®

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