Year of the drone

Drone attack Venezuela

This year there were two major and ominous drone-related incidents. One was the attack on Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro by a pair of exploding DJI drones in August:

However, in this attack, it is not the drones as such that should be getting the attention. Instead, the interesting part is that it was flown by a non-state group (reportedly the ‘T-Shirt Soldiers’) and that this attack happened in a civilian context, rather than in a conflict zone. It is this aspect that makes the Caracas event a departure from what we have seen before. But it had been a long time coming.

For decades, drones have been used by militaries around the world, with approximately 90 countries using military drones of some kind today. Civilian drones, by contrast, are much younger. But even though the commercial drone market is still in its infancy, millions of hobbyist drones have been sold around the world. Of course, this did not go unnoticed by non-state actors such as terror groups.

Note that the drones used in the Caracas attack retail for about $5,000.

The article reports this amazing fact:

In response, anti-drone technology has boomed: a 2016 Goldman Sachs Investment report estimated that almost 10 percent of US defense research and development funds goes into financing counter-drone systems.

The second was the shutdown of England’s Gatwick Airport for nearly two days in the week before Christmas, grounding 1,000 flights and affecting some 140,000 travelers, due to an alleged drone sighting:

But just how many drones caused this massive disruption, who was operating them and, most importantly, why? Over a week and a half later, there are still no answers, no culprits, and no drones recovered. The best British authorities can offer is that they are “absolutely certain” there was at least one drone.

The attack, if it even was that, succeeded spectacularly in sowing the chaos, confusion and systems disruption that are the hallmarks of fourth-generation warfare:

On Saturday (Dec. 29), in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today program, Sussex police chief constable Giles York revealed the latest on what the area’s police force had learned about the incident at Britain’s second-largest airport. He said there had been 115 reports of drone sightings to police, including 93 confirmed as coming from credible sources, such as law enforcement and air traffic employees.

But beyond those eyewitness accounts, things get rather muddy. A couple that had been arrested by police and held for 36 hours was released without charge, and said that they felt “violated” by their experience and the release of their identities. York also had to concede that it was possible that police drones launched to catch the perpetrator(s) during the ordeal caused “some level of confusion”—suggesting that some of the reported sightings could have been of drones operated by police. Additionally, York said that two drones found nearby were ruled out of being involved in the incident, and searches of 26 sites in the immediate area were not fruitful. Further complicating matters, last week a senior Sussex police officer was quoted saying there was a possibility there hadn’t ”been any genuine drone activity in the first place.” This was later called a misstatement, and blamed on poor communication.

Economic and psychological damage: enormous. Cost of attack: virtually nil. The math works!

This is not going to stop. To the contrary, the combination of ultra-low cost and the potential for massive, even cataclysmic disruption means that drone attacks could become increasingly common. One way or another, modern society needs to be comprehensively hardened against malicious drones or there won’t be a modern society anymore.

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