The Future of Violence

The Future of Violence is Now: "Hostile Use of Drones"

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, January 26, 2016, 9:47 PM

This is interesting for folks interested in The Future of Violence—a new report on "Hostile Drones: The Hostile Use of Drones By Non-State Actors Against British Targets." Published by something called the Remote Control Project, its Executive Summary reads as follows:

After long and frequently controversial use by the military, unmanned vehicle technology is now being widely employed in numerous civilian settings. There are unmanned vehicles (or drones) for use in the air (UAVs), on land (UGVs) and on or under the sea (UMVs). Drones are used for leisure and to monitor crops, take aerial photographs, track hurricanes, protect wildlife, monitor traffic, deliver parcels, undertake search and rescue operations and monitor disaster zones. As with many preceding technologies, civilian drones are also used for less benign purposes, including snooping and harassment, drug trafficking and smuggling contraband into prisons.

Ongoing large-scale commercial investment has led to civilian drones becoming cheaper, able to operate over longer ranges and capable of carrying ever-larger payloads. The pace of development has accelerated in recent years, with a vast range of models now available to the civilian customer. There are hundreds of models available, ranging in size from that of an AA battery to prototypes capable of carrying a person.

The legislation governing the civilian use of drones is still evolving. It is struggling to keep up with the speed at which innovative uses are being identified and new drones developed. There are growing concerns over the use of drones by private individuals with little knowledge of aviation rules. In July 2015, the US Department of Homeland Security distributed an intelligence assessment to law enforcement agencies warning of the possibility of criminal or terrorist groups using unmanned aerial vehicles.

In February 2015, the House of Lords EU Select Committee called for the mandatory registration of all civilian drones in the United Kingdom. As legislation stands, anyone can buy a drone and immediately operate it without any training or a license, as long as the drone weighs less than 20 kilograms and it is not being used for commercial purposes. While there are minimal regulations specifically governing the use of ground and marine drones, aerial versions must not be flown within 150 metres of any populated area or 50 metres of any other person, vehicle or structure. The operator is also required to keep the drone in sight, within 500 metres and below 400 feet in altitude. While these simple rules will be followed by the majority of leisure users, those with more nefarious motivations will be less inclined to adhere to them. Even if followed, the regulations cannot account for operator error or technical drone failures. The regulations surrounding UGVs and UMVs are less clear, though existing maritime navigation rules and motor vehicle regulations will likely apply and combat vehicles will likely be covered by existing import/export arms control regimes.

This report details the findings of our study into the hostile use of drones by non-state actors against British targets. While the focus is on unmanned aerial vehicles, we have examined the designs and capabilities of over 200 current and upcoming unmanned aerial, ground and marine systems in order to understand the threat these platforms pose to potential targets. The previous hostile use of drones by non-state actors is also examined. A range of terrorist, insurgent, criminal, corporate and activist threat groups using drones for attacks and intelligence gathering are identified. The report outlines specific recommendations on the strategies available to mitigate the threat of the hostile use of drones by non-state actors in the short to medium term.

There is no doubt that unmanned vehicles are here to stay and will have a considerable impact on society, both beneficial and detrimental. Although there is still a large gap between the capabilities of military and civilian drones, commercially available drones are giving hobbyists, companies and hostile groups access to capabilities previously only available to the military. Law enforcement agencies and policymakers are struggling to respond appropriately to this development. This report is a contribution to countering that threat.

The body of the report contains an overview of UAV use by lone wolves, terrorist groups, insurgent groups, corporations, organized crime, and activist groups. I haven't read it yet, but it looks interesting.