Drones have evolved from a glorified camera in the sky, to a machine with capabilities of creating sophisticated 3D models of urban infrastructure and topographical features. What once meant controlling its movement only while the drone was within eyesight, now has transitioned to operating remotely and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), even while on different planets – as we’ve seen with Nasa’s mission on mars.  With the proliferation of drone ownership, alongside the advancement of the complex technology that governs its deployment, the results are the inevitable increase in drone misuse, careless piloting, and felonious intent. There are certain locations and sectors which attract a significant amount of attention from drone attacks or reckless flying, which this blog explores.

Critical infrastructure

The arteries and vital organs of a society – the transport networks, power plants, essential commercial or government facilities, communications towers, etc – these are often the targets of intentional sabotage by nefarious actors. Drones are becoming a popular weapon of choice, a silent attacker delivering formidable payloads or stealing sensitive information and data. ISIS is known to have modified commercial drones into airborne Improvised Explosive Devices, with an approximate payload of 5kg of explosives. Russian attacks on Ukrainian power networks, Houthi rebels targeting Saudi Arabian petroleum storage and Israeli drone strikes on Iranian defense facilities are a small number of notable incidents where drones have been mobilized with the purpose of harming essential infrastructure. Protecting critical infrastructure from these drone threats is essential.

Similarly, prohibited surveillance and reconnaissance or intellectual property theft are common calling cards of crime syndicates, terrorists and rogue states. From alleged attempts by China to hack a Swedish telecoms company to a recent, classified US report which highlighted that countries have been using advanced drones to spy on American military installations.

The size and mobility of drones make them difficult to detect and track against the backdrop of the sheer size and complex operating facilities they target. Without a dedicated counter-UAS solution in place, intrusions will be unchallenged and besides for a physical strike, their trespass not even noticed. A guard shift change or difficult visual conditions present opportunities for entering a location undiscovered for instance, and by extension without tracking technology, the perpetrators can easily evade capture. Not every drone entering into a territory illegally is a precursor to an attack or a malicious attempt to steal information, but regardless, counter-UAS systems can help to monitor drone activity., detect anything unusual, and take remedial measures against a potential threat. 

Prisons

A growing issue for prisons worldwide is the ease and frequency by which drones are being deployed to smuggle drugs and other contraband into prisons, as well as to conduct illegal surveillance and facilitate escape attempts. The rise in contraband deliveries into prisons drew the attention of the US Department of Justice, which stated that drones were ‘one of the major security threats facing the federal prison system.’ The European Commission’s counterterrorism unit and Interpol also flagged illegal drone activity in detention centers as a worrying trend, while back in 2017 the UK Government initiated a special taskforce to tackle the drone threat in prisons. The problem is, despite all counter measures from defense departments and efforts to prosecute offenders, it hasn’t reduced the violations. Using South Carolina as an example, the Department of Corrections has recorded 424 drone sightings. Only 29 were recorded in 2017 compared to 166 in 2021. In a 2020 report it was found that illegal drone activity increased in the US by 50% year on year. The global pandemic saw criminals take advantage of a system in lockdown, and find other means of reaching prisoners with visits suspended. This paved the way for a continued rise in drone drops even once lockdowns had been released.  

During the upsurge in Covid drone invasions, prison authorities were found ill-prepared and caught off guard, with defensive measures shown to be inadequate and failing to recognize or manage threats even in daylight. Prisons in general can be hamstrung by tight budgets and as such have relied on cheaper, ineffective drone deterrents such as netting cast over prison yards or narrow offerings which don’t tackle the complete threat. To successfully combat the hazards drones pose, solutions should include high-performance detection methods which can alert security officials of an illegal presence many kilometers away before it ever has a chance to release its payload and mitigation systems which intercept the communication between operator and drone. Moreover, whatever solution is used, it must be seamlessly integrated with existing prison security systems, enabling a straightforward correlation, and sharing of information.

Airports

High-impact and costly, unexpected drone appearances or attacks at an airport can be the work of anyone from terrorist groups with intent to commit an aggressive strike, to hobbyists who have lost control of their craft. It’s a multi-million-dollar nuisance and a danger to thousands of passengers and staff. An airplane’s engine can be destroyed on impact by a stray drone, an authorized drone flight can interfere with other air traffic and trigger expensive rerouting and delays, while airports have been shut down simply due to a drone sighting. Drones also deliver violent payloads, with 12 injuries reported after an attack on a Saudi airport in 2021. The well-publicized Gatwick Airport incident in December 2018 shows the level of disruption drones can cause. With hundreds of flights cancelled or diverted and 140,000 people affected after drone sightings near or on runways, it became a cautionary tale to prevent future chaos. Politicians called for clearer rules on the use of drones near airports and recommended the incorporation of a drone exclusion zone.

Counter UAS systems have been deployed in Gatwick and other airports since the 2018 event, and the Saudi airports have interception capabilities which can neutralize the drone threat, but airports are notoriously hard to defend due to the area they occupy. The no-fly zones generally relate to drone operations below 400ft and within 5km of a protected location. Counter-drone solutions for airports need to be agile and more transportable than for smaller sites. Therefore, a more robust counter-UAS network should include fixed and mobile platforms, with mobile systems capable of being repositioned according to need.

Keeping pace

Globally, the commercial drone market is expected to expand significantly in the coming years, with some estimates projecting it could reach $11.2 billion by 2027. The pace of drone development is outstripping the regulations which underpin proper use. Counter-UAS solutions are varied and effective but must be employed alongside an established and mature legal framework which allows a range of mitigations and by extension supports appropriate drone use. This requires focusing on the sectors most at risk, as described here, in order to prevent, monitor and suppress the most pervasive and dangerous threats where they occur.