More than ever, I’m worried about small drone aircraft

Last year, writing about the growing numbers of ‘hobby drones’ flying around, I said:

What worries me most is that terrorists can’t be blind to the possibilities of this technology.  They must surely have among their members and sympathizers many individuals capable of controlling these small drones in flight.  What if they deliberately began launching them into the approach and landing patterns of major airports, seeking to cause a collision?  Even worse, what if they succeeded in seriously damaging or even destroying an airliner?  Can you imagine the panic among air travelers?  It’d shut down US air travel for a much longer period than 9/11, because there are literally thousands of these things out there, and no-one could be sure when one might not be launched from cover such as a clump of trees, or a city rooftop high above traffic, or something like that.  There’d be no way to trace it back to its launch point or locate the person controlling it.

Now we read this report in the Washington Post.

Before last year, close encounters with rogue drones were unheard of. But as a result of a sales boom, small, largely unregulated remote-control aircraft are clogging U.S. airspace, snarling air traffic and giving the FAA fits.

Pilots have reported a surge in close calls with drones: nearly 700 incidents so far this year, according to FAA statistics, about triple the number recorded for all of 2014. The agency has acknowledged growing concern about the problem and its inability to do much to tame it.

So far, the FAA has kept basic details of most of this year’s incidents under wraps, declining to release reports that are ordinarily public records and that would spotlight where and when the close calls occurred.

The Washington Post obtained several hundred of the rogue-drone reports from a government official who objected to the FAA’s secrecy. An FAA spokeswoman, Laura Brown, declined to comment on the reports obtained by The Post.

The documents show that ­remote-control planes are penetrating some of the most guarded airspace in the country.

There’s more at the link.

I’ve lived in a country where terrorist attacks were an everyday occurrence.  I’ve visited other countries where it was just as bad.  I can’t help but be more and more worried about these uncontrolled drone flights.  They’re an almost perfect tool for terrorists, even if they aren’t ‘weaponized’ by putting guns or explosives on them.  They hold the potential to disrupt normal air travel simply by swamping the airspace around airports with dozens of collision hazards – and there’s very little chance of finding those controlling them.  What’s worse, autonomous drones, that can be programmed to fly a set course or circle a given point (say, the approach end of an airport runway), can be launched and then left to do their thing while the operator simply walks or drives away.

I note that no-one in official circles is saying much about the potential for terrorism posed by these drones.  To me, that silence speaks very loudly indeed.  I have a very strong suspicion that not all these drone flights in the vicinity of airports are ‘innocent’ mistakes by ‘over-enthusiastic’ or ‘thoughtless’ drone owners.  I’m sure that at least some of them are deliberate, and I’m equally sure that we’re going to see more of them.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a concerted campaign on high-profile, high-traffic days to disrupt air travel into a particular venue (say, a presidential inauguration, or a sporting event such as the Kentucky Derby or the Indianapolis 500 or the Augusta National – anything that might attract a high volume of extra airline flights or private aircraft).  The publicity that could be generated by such a campaign, even if no aircraft are brought down, would be of great value to a terrorist organization.

What’s more, drones of this type could be employed by terrorists planning an operation.  Let’s say an ISIS or Al Qaeda cell wants to mount a Beslan-style assault in the USA (which I’m sure they’d love to do).  They could have a couple of drones that they can launch when the strike is under way, using them to monitor responses by security forces and adjust their defenses accordingly.  They might even use drones controlled by sympathizers outside the perimeter of the operation, feeding information to them and perhaps bringing in messages if normal communications are disrupted.  If armed forces across the world are doing this, right now, why can’t terrorists?  Some micro-UAV’s are so small they’re almost undetectable, and countermeasures against them are almost non-existent at present.

I reckon this is yet another reason to drive to one’s destination, rather than fly, unless urgency dictates the faster method of travel.  I’m seriously concerned about this.



  1. Why are drones such a sudden problem, when RC airplanes and helicopters have been available for what, 30-40 years? Drones don't require the considerable skills that the airplanes and helicopters require and have not scaled to the size of their RC brethren. But there have been rules for a long time regarding use regular RC aircraft, why aren't these applied to drones? Think about this: why not use the same stabilization, navigation and communication electronics that a drone uses and remake them to self-stabilize an RC airplane. Winged airplane can carry a much larger load a longer distance; which is truly the bigger threat? Now you've got a real drone, near-military grade. The only real difference is the cost to operate – a small, low capacity drone can be much cheaper than a similar sized RC airplane. But it won't have the payload of the airplane either.
    Compare and contrast with "gun control". There are already laws, rules, and regulations in place regarding sales, transfer, storage, use of in commission of crime, for guns, but somehow everyone want to create even more laws, primarily because the current ones aren't enforced. Just a matter of scope.
    Thanks for all the good books, stay safe out there!

  2. Wandering Neurons makes a good point about drones not being fundamentally different from any other RC aircraft, except being easier to fly. I think a major reason for the market impact of the low cost drones is that RC airplanes and helicopters are aimed at people who like to fly them for the skill required, while the mass market drones are more aimed at people who want to use them. I didn't get any message from you that you were calling for new regulations, though, just trying to get the rest of us thinking.

    Really, just about anything that gets ingested by a jet engine is going to cause problems. The aircraft is probably going to lose that engine. In the low/slow regime of flight on final approach, it's going to be hard to recover from. I suspect, though, that even a 20' diameter intake fan is going to be hard to hit.

    I think any fighter pilot will honestly talk about what I've heard called the golden BB. One hit in the right place brings any multi-million dollar fighter down.

  3. One of the things being 'tried' is 'fencing' e.g. limiting drones GPS systems to limit their ability to penetrate certain areas, however those fences have proven to be hackable by drone's owners. This IS a growing issue and isn't going to get any better. WN and Greybeard both raise good points and one 'golden BB' is all it will take…

  4. Dear Peter,

    when good people start to waste their precious time brooding over how their life may be protected against terrorists – then those terrorists have already won.

    Please do not promote their agenda by spreading fear. I was really flabbergasted to see YOU sing from the same hymn sheet as those milquetosts who call for more laws, more police, more regulations.

    Don't you Americans have already enough of NSA snooping and TSA groping? Gun regulation getting tighter?
    Do you really want more of that?

    I am living in Germany, a country that is by far more regulated than the U.S.. For example, I would be more than happy to have just a tenth of the guns that you personally call your own, but it is almost impossible to get a license here. You need a license for everything that is fun, or it is flat out forbidden.

    You are living in a great country that used to be the epitome of freedom. But since 9/11 it went down the slippery slope. People seem to forget that there is no such thing as perfect security. Not against terrorism. Never ever. Not even under Stalin, Mao or Hitler.

    But there is certainly a danger to loose your freedom – step by step.

    Best regards


  5. @Wandering Neurons and Hansjörg Demand:

    Please read what I said, and don't put words in my mouth. I have NOT called for any new laws or regulations. They won't help in this situation, just as new gun laws won't help. The evil that men do is in their hearts and minds and souls, not in the tools they use. If they can't use guns or drones, they'll find something else to be the instrument of their evil deeds.

    The only real defense against this sort of thing is to catch the criminals, preferably before they can act, but at least during or after the act.

  6. Peter,

    I have read your words. MY concern is that any form of "fear-mongering" may just be grist to the mill of these people calling for more regulations.

    As you may know, on friday three fearless Americans and a Brit disarmed a terrorist in a european train, before he could shoot dozens with his AK-47, Pistol and nine magazines of ammo.

    I was just waiting for the first knee-jerk reactions – from citizens and politicians likewise. Something like: "We need the same security checks at train stations as at airports!!!"

    And then you happened to write about another "new threat" you are seriously concerned about…


  7. Peter, I realize that you did not advocate adding or changing laws, I extrapolated that myself. But the reason is that the FAA seems paralyzed in handling the issue, when there's already rules in place that they could enforce, and additional capabilities that could be put in place such as "geofencing" or other active/passive measures. But my main contention is that the drones should follow the already existing rules/policy/law, and anyone not doing so be held accountable by the FAA.

    Yes, a terrorist could use a drone, but the payload is rather small. OTOH, prisoners are being supplied by drones much more regularly, and as you discuss, they are a major threat to aircraft. What exactly is the FAA doing other than wringing their hands? Could the FAA be waiting for that golden BB, to impose draconian controls, instead of measured steps?

    Good discussion topic though, and I totally understand the concern. I've got a few friends who own, modify, and fly drones. Some of them are very conscientious, others are much less so.

  8. On the terrorism angle I've got to agreed with Wandering Neurons and Hansjörg Demand. The terrorism scare isn't much different from the absurd obsession with "safety" that has turned every playground into the equivalent of a padded room and every youth sport into a contact free event. Yes, occasionally things happen, but in the end you lose a less by just dealing with things when they come up instead of hyperventilating at every new potential threat.

    Technologically speaking, Old NFO is right about the folly of GPS "fences". Among other things, it's trivial to incorporate GLONASS along with (or instead of) GPS. I could probably put together such a system in a weekend, and I'm far from an expert.

    David, you really, really don't want operating ECM around busy airports. Especially not ECM that would jam GPS (which is what many drones use for guidance when in autonomous modes). While you might be able to jam a few potential control frequencies it wouldn't be worth the trouble since it'd be easy to switch frequencies, go with something more exotic like Wi-Fi (and you can't jam that without starting a riot in the terminal) or just switch to purely autonomous inertial or GPS-based waypoint navigation.

  9. the multirotor drones are actually much harder to fly than traditional RC aircraft. The thing is that computer autopilots have become so advanced that it hides this problem. The same autopilot technology makes fixed-wing craft even easier to fly than ever.

    geofencing is not going to work. for the very simple reason that terrorists are not going to follow the rules.

    there is nothing that fundamentally requires a GPS in a drone, and the software to run these craft is freely available to be modified by whoever is running the craft. So again, the bad guys aren't going to be following your rules.

    Any ideas that involve registration or tracking of purchases are also going to fail because you don't have to buy pre-built drones or even kits, you can build them from scratch (including the computer auto-pilot with off-the-shelf computer boards like the Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone Black)

    even if they wanted to use off-the-shelf drones, they could insert a module between the GPS and the drone that would offset the actual position the autopilot thinks it's at, then program the autopilot location accordingly.

    Right now people are super paranoid about drones in the area. There were several stories earlier this year about how firefighting aircraft are held off if there is a report of even one drone in the area. A collision with a hobbiest drone is not going to be any worse than one with a large bird.

    The chance of there actually being a collision is _very_ low, and as we've seen in so many other areas, trying to eliminate all risk at any cost leads to silly results and tremendous costs.

    There are already laws prohibiting these sorts of actions, enforce existing rules (at least when you can track down the owners) rather than hand-wringing and "someone needs to do something about this" (which seems to be a call for more laws)

  10. @david re: ECM packages

    some of these are radio control, many are self navigating. You can't jam them without also jamming the guidance systems of the aircraft you want to have there.

  11. It can't be stopped by laws or technology. The genie is out of the bottle. This has been possible for a long time, it's just now it is really cheap. Pretty easy to take down, though. Hmmm, maybe we should hire RC drone people to take search for and take out other drones.

    Clayton W.

  12. Clayton,

    two avenues, R/C drone killer fighter aircraft models, or critical site located laser systems. I suspect the laser system(s) would get the nod, providing costs can be handled. However, they would be hobbled when dealing with terrain following drones, as there would be a great deal of delicate "backstops" you would not want to hit with a high-powered beam. Targeting systems would have to be very precise, but you still have a lot of "voids" in the profile of a drone. Best case might be a combo of the two systems for greatest protection.

    A third option might be a cannon firing Case or Canister, but the shot would have to be a very light material to severely reduce range, and therefor reduce the chances of collateral damage. This weapon would be the most problematic to deploy, in most cases.

  13. Hmmm…. A 12 gauge bird shot firing Phalanx system? If it will stop cruise missiles at sea, drones over airport property should be cake. Bird shot vs. 20mm cannon, should be able to knockout drones out to the airfield's threshold, where heavies should be out of a drones reach? Someone else might know if I'm whistling past the graveyard….

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