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May 9, 2006
The Ultimate Terrorist Threat: Flying Robot Drones
This one really pegs the movie-plot threat hype-meter:
The technology for remote-controlled light aircraft is now highly advanced, widely available -- and, experts say, virtually unstoppable.
Models with a wingspan of five metres (16 feet), capable of carrying up to 50 kilograms (110 pounds), remain undetectable by radar.
And thanks to satellite positioning systems, they can now be programmed to hit targets some distance away with just a few metres (yards) short of pinpoint accuracy.
Security services the world over have been considering the problem for several years, but no one has yet come up with a solution.
Armed militant groups have already tried to use unmanned aircraft, according to a number of studies by institutions including the Center for Nonproliferation studies in Monterey, California, and the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies in Moscow.
In August 2002, for example, the Colombian military reported finding nine small remote-controlled planes at a base it had taken from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
On April 11, 2005 the Lebanese Shiite militia group, Hezbollah, flew a pilotless drone over Israeli territory, on what it called a "surveillance" mission. The Israeli military confirmed this and responded by flying warplanes over southern Lebanon.
Remote-control planes are not hard to get hold of, according to Jean-Christian Delessert, who runs a specialist model airplane shop near Geneva.
"Putting together a large-scale model is not difficult -- all you need is a few materials and a decent electronics technician," says Delessert.
In his view, "if terrorists get hold of that, it will be impossible to do anything about it. We did some tests with a friend who works at a military radar base: they never detected us... if the radar picks anything up, it thinks it is a flock of birds and automatically wipes it."
Posted on May 9, 2006 at 7:36 AM
• 65 Comments
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There's one solution to all these movie-plot threats that I'm certain will work: decentralization. If our infrastructure and our population was more spread out, these types of threats wouldn't be an issue.
"There's one solution to all these movie-plot threats that I'm certain will work: decentralization. If our infrastructure and our population was more spread out, these types of threats wouldn't be an issue."
Well, there are still high-profile targets. It's hard to decentralize the President or individual celebrities - but the general ability to cause mass destruction would be greatly reduced, yes.
Only one simple thought, why the good do not seems to succeed and why the hackers or attackers make it first... because the good needs a reason to do something; be it recognition, reward, returns, etc whereas the hackers or attackers have only one aim. They simply focus and dive only on one - no two no three just one. Typically, the good choose to react and many a times justification comes again with who make them feel good as not to what is critical and best secured way to handle every challenge...
This very good idea IMHO :)
@D: These threats *aren't* an issue. Magic robot drones are useful to established militaries for recon or pinpointed strikes, but those aren't particularly useful tools for non-state combatants. Hezbollah kicked the incredibly powerful IDF out of Lebanon without shmancy gadgetry; al-Qaeda launched the biggest non-state terrorist attack in history with box cutters; Timothy McVeigh killed 168 with a truck and fertilizer. Why would a terrorist org waste time and money with a frankly bizarre attack model when suicide attacks and car bombs can kill and cause panic so effectively.
"Well, there are still high-profile targets. It's hard to decentralize the President or individual celebrities - but the general ability to cause mass destruction would be greatly reduced, yes." - Anonymous
The beauty of the U.S. government is that if one of our leaders is lost there will by others to take the place. Yes, it would be sad, but we would still function as a nation (Reference JFK).
I don't understand why everyone throws the dancing monkeys in with important government officials. Would we really all be that upset if someone attacked the quack Cruise with an unmanned aircraft?
Just my two cents.....
Wow, what innovative brilliance!
No one in policy circles has _ever_ thought of that. Of course, their inability to think clearly is why LA is constructed exactly the same as NYC.
Ironically we would not have this particular source of threats except for the costs of all the automobiles that are required for decentralization. We would not, as a nation, be pumping money into religious extremist states with dominant ideologies that advocate our destruction (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). There have been secondary consequences to the adoption of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, the zoning of pure business/commerce/industrial neighbors, and the suburban infrastructure that has resulted.
Oh well, I was going to suggest School Bus Terrorism for the movie plot contest, but this one really takes the cake.
I give up.
I was hoping they'd give the price for that helicopter pictured at the top. It looks like it would be cool, but I'm curious why it would only be able of going 12MPH. My little RC helicopter can go well over 50MPH, and larger models can probably do closer to 100MPH before going into a blade stall. Of course, if someone is using a helicopter for an attack, they've likely done the target a huge favor. Helicopters have higher fuel consumption and lower payload capacities than airplanes.
The common theme with these types of stories is that they are right in saying that the attack vector is possible. The part they intentionally ignore is the incredibly low probability of anyone ever doing it. For indiscriminate attacks, a car bomb will always have the best terror bang for the buck. For specific targets, no one is going to beat the effectiveness of a sniper.
If someone already has experience in building RC devices, there are much worse things they could do than make small missiles. While it's possible that planes with a 16' wingspan can carry a 110lb payload, it's a totally impractical delivery vehicle. It may not show up on radar, but someone is going to see something that large. One guy I talked to said they got yelled at a few times by the Scottsdale Airport tower for flying their RC helicopters too high a few blocks away.
Logistically, that's a horrible platform. They need a truck to haul the disassembled pieces somewhere that they have enough time to put it together and take off without anyone noticing. This is the kind of attack that might work once before people call 911 as soon as they see RC aircraft in weird places.
It also wouldn't take an elaborate anti-aircraft defense system to take out an RC aircraft. A hillbilly with a shotgun should be sufficient. With a small payload, if the vehicle is taken out even 100 yards away, there will be little, if any, damage to the target.
As for high-profile targets, use redundancy - make sure that taking out a small number of them doesn't have a great negative impact.
Yes, there's only one president, but there's a long chain of people ready (and probably eager) to take his place at any given time.
Returning to the original threat, RC model airplane pilots that fly close to military bases will tell you that their planes fall out of the skies anytime a military plane or heli is close by. Ensuring a reliable control channel would probably be difficult, and the radio traffic would most likely be the easiest way to detect this.
This is off course funny in two ways.
1) I don't see this happening and even if so, everything can be turned for this purpose. What's next, a ban on RC toy cars?
2) The US military is using spy planes (drones) themselves for recon because they are difficult to detect, so why in earth would they think this cannot be used against them? Why hype this vague threat now?
Bruce, I would send the free book copy to these guys, even though they missed the deadline.
Old news. Ever hear of the $5000 cruse missle? And GPS is specifically designed to prevent it's use in (high speed) missles - even my cheap GPS says it won't work over (IIRC) 500mph.
He's taken his site down, due to government pressure, but the story is still at:
Oh, and if you want something a little cuter, try this for fun:
280mph and *really* agile too :-)
Of course, it needs a 23mm bb-gun, and some little sidewinders, but it's a start...
Just to add, I'd be more worried about a remote controlled car/bus/truck than a model plane. The payload capacity is several orders of magnitude larger and they would be much easier to build. Another advantage is that you can forgo the RC electronics and radios and use an indoctrinated individual as the "remote control and targeting device."
You're right that this type of threat isn't a real issue. But it does seem to be an issue with the media and with politicians. Decentralization is my suggestion to make such threats a non-issue to *everyone*.
There's currently tremendous cost involved in the individual transaportation needs of the milliions of people traveling 30+ miles to a centralized metropolis to go to work. Decentralize and you bring "work" closer to millions of people, ultimately reducing costs: gas, maintenance, vehicle longevity...
Excellent point - and let's not forget the IRA's effective use of ancient Mauser M1898 Rifles against a far better equipped military. "High-tech" has never been a part of the revolutionary's lexicon.
Bruce, you are doing a disservice to the community by dismissing these with one-liner quips. If you have substantial reason to think that it is impossible for this sort of thing to be a practical means of attack, by all means, please share.
Not even original.
'City Hunter' had an episode with an assassin that used RC models packed with explosives to kill his targets. Even earlier, the 'Avengers' in the '60s were up against foreign agents that had the same gimmick.
Okay, I missed the deadline, but how's this:
Remote controlled drone *school buses*! Filled with smallpox and anthrax! And with exploding tires!
@Frank Ch. Eigler
Not even Bruce can be an expert in every field. If he was way off base on this one, I'm sure someone would chime in with their viewpoint. I believe he dismisses it quickly because even on the surface it seems like a really impractical attack vector.
I gave my comments earlier about why this isn't a practical means of attack. I don't claim to be an aircraft engineer, but as someone who has built and flown RC aircraft (airplane and helicopter), I do have some experience with the capabilities and limitations of RC aircraft. It doesn't take an expert to recognize that it's possible to use them as weapons, but really impractical.
Does anyone remember that one of the justifications for the invasion of Iraq was Hussein's drone program? ( http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0313/... )
Why is the drone idea getting stirred up now?
"Why is the drone idea getting stirred up now?"
Maybe somebody at the CIA will "discover" Iran is building drones to launch their nookular bombs..
Here's my try for the movie-plot threat hype-meter maxout :-
We've got the soccer world cup in Germany this year. How about replacing the line-whitener in the marking machines with some white biological agent? In a closed stadium you could maybe take out 100.000 people with that. Best we have someone sniff every package of line-whitener due for use.
Oh wait, it's coke ;-)
that's all right then :-)
I don't think he's saying it's impossible, just that it's overly dramatic and that there are much easier ways to deliver 50 kgs (or more) of just about anything to a target.
At some point we're just making sure that terrorits can't lower the United States into a pool of ill-tempered mutant sea bass while the terrorists are preparing to execute operation "just wack 'em".
If I were the bad guy, I wouldn't use RC -- way too easy to jam, and you have have line of sight. GPS is a much better bet. GPS modules are cheap and small, and getting cheaper and smaller. Microcontrollers are as well. If you're working at the 2-5 mile range, I think the attack would be over before DOD could degrade GPS.
The hard parts 1) terminal targeting -- getting a plane to fly straight to a target via GPS is easy, getting it to fall out of the sky at just the right moment, that's not so easy, but it's not impossible. 2) Terrain is the hardest part to work with, to simply, you'd need to fly high and try to dive straight down. Terrain following rapidly complicates the problem. This limits range -- in most places, 2-5 miles means you can fly at 500' AGL launch site and avoid most terrain, mod antennas. There are exceptions, but that's part of target selection. If you want to be sure, you look up the MSA for the neary airport, and fly that.
Flying high makes ground detection harder, but radar detection easier. However, most planes of this size would have little metal, so the radar cross section is going to be very small (the motor and controller are pretty much it, and they aren't that big.) With the right paint and a slow prop, a 6' bird at 1500' AGL launch site is going to be hard to spot from the ground, and if you're near a city, it'll probably be lost in the ground clutter.
Now, you're not going to do much damage, unless you can get a large group to panic..
It's still not an easy thing to do, but as to the controller, all you need is smarts and parts, and parts are cheap.
rc drones seem more useful for assassination, an objective different from creating widespread terror. unless leaders of government and business want to stay in their bunkers forever...celebrities would be no great loss. i am not the only american who would applaud if 10-20 of our most obnoxious celebs were taken out overnight. start with tom cruise if you want, just don't stop there.
also wondered about the use of insectoid robots. suppose you had something the size of a grasshopper, that you could rc to within 30-40 feet of your target (who would, ideally, be seated at an outdoor banquet). its payload would be a single .22 long rifle round, not as much power as a .357 or 9 mm for sure, but you would be able to aim it with great precision. i don't presume to be the first person in the world to have thought of this, consequently, somebody out there is working on it right now.
Ok, to the movie-plot-meter:
"1. People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks."
Indeed. And robots coming out of nowhere carrying explosive, biological or radiological payloads do constitute a spectacular but rare risk.
"2. People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation."
Most people do not understand the limitations of these drones. Thus, it would be really easy for doomsday scenarios to crop everywhere.
"3. Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks."
A drone attack brings back all those "evil mastermind", "crazy scientist" and "alien invasion" fears that Hollywood has been cashing on all this time.
"4. People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can't control."
Some caountermeasures have been detailed above, but all in all people would feel pretty defenseless.
"5. People overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny."
Like dirty bombs, anthrax, etc.
All in all, I think it is a decent movie plot scenario... although "The Ultimate Terrorist Threat" is maybe too much.
Seeing as there have been plenty of suicide attacks, why worry about RC cars or boats when human control would be simplier, cheaper, and less open to countermeasures (at least in somewhat populated areas).
RC planes are a little more interesting, but I'd be more inclined to worry that the garbage collection truck didn't enter the base mostly full of explosives, which would make a very big 'boom', over a small plane that can carry 50 Kg or so.
Decentralization, to be effective, implies splitting all the offices in DC into smaller units spread out around the country; ditto on a small scale for state governments. Doesn't do a lot of good to have a chain of command if that chain is in a tight ball.
The real limitation is 50kg of explosive. That sounds like a lot, but it's not that distructive. Folks load 5-10 times as much in a car bomb. You could damage something small, even something strategic like an airport radar. But it's no weapon of mass distruction.
Gads. Why I would never use this to try to wreak havoc if I was a terrorist.
1. Cost/benefit ratio. A lot of money and R&D to get the thing to work. Much cheaper and more accurate to by a bookbag at goodwill and pack it full of the same amount of whatever (no balance issues) wire up a remote detonator using a cell phone, garage door opener, FRS radio, key fob, etc.) Go leave the bag, get clear, and blow it. Repeat several times for the cost of one RC Plane with navigation.
Never detectable by radar. Pretty much fool proof. Shoot, I can even use a simple timer for detonation.
Terrorist do not have big R&D budgets. Building this stuff is possible, but it's not easy, and you don't get many mistakes without loosing body parts or your life.
Why is anyone worried about remote-controlled devices when the current crop of terrorists are so happy to die they won't even PUT DOWN their bombs before setting them off?
There are few things as amusing as an attempted terrorist atrocity that has failed to hurt anyone but the terrorist.
Hezbollah *does* do drones. They flew one over northern Israel a few months back, and years ago they attacked an oil terminal with chaps who arrived by hang glider.
Let's not forget the hype about Saddam Hussein's pilotless WMD aircraft.
The consequences of muddled thinking in this area (not to mention outright misrepresentation of the facts) can be rather high.
@Alex: The hang-glider bit is actually an excellent example of why terrorists or militants *don't* need nonsensical gadgetry. Creativity (and a few suicidal recruits) go a lot farther.
And, yes, the article notes they used a drone once, for recon. But most of their recon depends on goat-herders, apparently, and it appears to work fine.
"The beauty of the U.S. government is that if one of our leaders is lost there will by others to take the place. Yes, it would be sad, but we would still function as a nation (Reference JFK)."
JFK was the easy one- replace one guy with another. Remember that Gerald Ford was a Congressman before getting the top job. First, he replaced VP Spiro Agnew, then he got the presidency when Nixon resigned. He didn't even have time to move into the vice president's residence. The 25th amendment did indeed work as intended.
Suicide bombers are more plentiful where life is cheap. We don't get so many over here because there are much better options for defectors here.
You might be able to recruit people to use drones -- the up-thread robot schoolbus or semi could deliver a pretty large payload.
Sorry, should have "tiny"ed that:
Hey, Bruce... when are you going to announce the winner of the contest? Next Crypto-gram? The suspense is killing me!
Hey, there's another movie plot -> Famous cryptographer opens contest, sits on the entries until the responders die from the suspense...
I can't believe no one has thought of this (or that I missed the movie plot threat contest deadline with this!):
Why build your own drone? Just steal one. The US mil has rather good ones, and some are even equipped with missiles. If its not in the right neighborhood, just steal a Global Hawk, as they have got continental range.
How to steal it? Hack in. They have remote (radio and satcom) interfaces, which you can run from a laptop. This is presumably non-trivial work, but how many bad crypto systems are there? Most, so I'll bet there is an exploitable flaw.
As far as terminal performance, even if you don't have a Hellfire equipped plane, they are still pretty big and full of fuel (A GH crashed on takeoff late in test and it made a decent, blackened hole in the ground). Not 9/11 bad, but I wouldn't want to be in a building hit by one.
There, that's something to be scared of. ;)
I have one word:
No pressure, eh?
Given how long it would take to decentralize enough to seriously reduce the impact of one A-bomb (or rate of spread of an epidemic), I think we can assume energy-efficient light rail and bicycles will have displaced cars for most uses.
Where would these drone be launched from? Tijuana? Matamoros? Douglas (BC)? Windsor (ON)? (I assume the Hezbollah drone launched from Palestinian territory, not from within Israel.)
How far would they get? How much damage can they cause?
As several others have mentioned, this is not much of a threat. Drones have been used since WW2 (the Germans were first with systems such as the V1 and Goliath), and today they still have the same faults. Either they are not precise enough (V1) or they need to be controlled by somebody (Goliath)
Frankly, this is not new (it has been around for 70 years), it’s not particularly dangerous (far too many limitations) and it’s not cost effective. So I can’t really see any traditional terrorist using this. And if a high-tech terrorist wants to cause mayhem there are far more interesting things to do than to build model planes and fill them with explosives. Sadly I am sure model building will soon be banned to protect us from terrorists.
"Bruce, you are doing a disservice to the community by dismissing these with one-liner quips. If you have substantial reason to think that it is impossible for this sort of thing to be a practical means of attack, by all means, please share."
A couple of things. First, I don't always have time for long posts. Sometimes I see something interesting, and then I post it here. The alternative is not a longer post; the alternative is no post.
Second, this is obviously a practical attack. I didn't dismiss it as impractical. I dismissed the article as hyping a movie-plot threat. Movie-plot threats are all practical; that's precisely why it's so easy to focus on them.
"Hey, Bruce... when are you going to announce the winner of the contest? Next Crypto-gram? The suspense is killing me!"
There are a lot of comments to wade through.
The United States is completely unprepared for invasion by cyborg remote-controlled Ebola-carrying turtles!
"Turtles, equipped with small circuit boards containing electronic compasses and electrodes that shock them on either the left or right side if they veer off-course, could carry the deadly ebola virus into the United States," some dumbass told reporters Tuesday. "We have nothing in place to detect or counter this amphibious biological threat."
"We suggest that Americans invest in plenty of bottled water, duct tape, and plastic sheeting as a precaution."
I hope you check your stats Bruce, and if you'll find something like: "wireless.9188.8.131.52.0.ag" we'll know they know about it now.
We've had thousands of rocket powered drones pointed at us for sixty years which deliver real bad juju.
"""It also wouldn't take an elaborate anti-aircraft defense system to take out an RC aircraft. A hillbilly with a shotgun should be sufficient."""
Thank you for the wonderful image of a tobacco-chewing racoon-hat-wearing hillbilly leaning on a patriot launcher, shotgun lovingly cradled in his arms, ready to defend the nation!
Uh, remote controlled planes HAVE been used to great success in terror attacks. Well, unless you all think that Hani Hanjour really got that lucky with AA77's Pentagon approach...
I thought this supposed threat was a hot topic right after 9-11. What's changed? Did someone forget? My sense back then was that if this was really a useful method it would be in use today by the intelligence communities. Alas their drones are hardly consumer-grade so far...but even more interesting is whether the NRA will support the notion that flying robot drones are covered by the 2nd amendment and WalMart will sell them without doing background checks.
We have had RC planes for a long time. This was posible in the 80's.....
But it has not really happened.
My question is why?
Why, if its so easy to blow stuff up, that knowbody is really doing it?
"Why, if its so easy to blow stuff up, that knowbody is really doing it?"
Well, we can stick our heads in the sand and believe those poor third-world military types we like to call "terrorists" will never be able to crawl out of the pleistocene and do us much harm .... or we can recognize that a GPS guided airplane (and similar tricks of a modern military) isn't all that difficult to accomplish. A one-off job to land a Cessna-bomb at the US Embassy in Shakedownistan? Most anyone reading this can probably achieve as much, and more. Even if the mission failed for some reason, just the _attempt_ would be remarkably effective: the West no longer has the monopoly on (effectively) cruise missiles. Can you imagine the panic-stricken headlines?
Fortunately, at this time, these "people who are reading this" have too much to lose and basically nothing to gain (though maybe Mythbusters will pull it off just for the TeeVee giggles). And those who "aren't reading this" have more 'economical' options available to them and/or more pressing problems to solve.
But things can change. US soldiers are being killed daily in Iraq by little more than bombs trigged by RF switches. Who'd a thunk? The guys at the other end of those switches are using video cameras, computers, and the like. Not many more steps of sophistication to drones.
"Why, if its so easy to blow stuff up, that nobody is really doing it?"
The short answer is that hardly anybody in the US is really motivated enough, and none of the people outside the US are able to get in to do it. Those fighting in Iraq much prefer to fight in local territory, where they have the advantage.
Autonomous drones have already flown across the Atlantic. Flying a few dozen miles would be no problem. The problem is the low payload capacity. The only payloads which would be a significant threat at a few pounds would be a biological or radiological weapon, and there are much simpler ways of dispersing those.
I know it might be too late to submit, but here goes. Someone earlier mentioned poisoning the water-misters at Disney, but having recently vacationed there I have a slightly different scenario. This one still involves Disney World, but specifically during the Main St. USA Parade at the end of any afternoon. Suicide terrorists could either infiltrate the organization or merely dress up as Disney Characters, disguising their bombs in their costumes and walk the parade route. At a coordinated time, they could detonate their bombs all along the parade route. Additionally, snipers perched above or among the crowds at the end of Main Street, could strafe the remaining crowds with machine gun fire. For a movie, there are so many other elements that could be included in this scenario, like the monorail, but you get the idea. Besides the obvious carnage, a place like Disney, an icon of American imagination and capitalism as well as vacationers from all over the world would be an ideal target - not to mention the name of the location is Main St. USA. The message it would send is, "We can get you ANYWHERE."
Financially, such an act would surely cripple or ruin Disney, and possibly the various airlines (that are already teetering on the brink) and hotels that accommodate Orlando and Orlando itself.
What makes you think i was talking just about USA. I don't live there. Most people in the world don't live there. Most people in the world don't want to live there.
I was talking in general terms. There is some of this going on of course, IRA etc. But not much. You are going to die from old age/heart attack/ cancer/car crash/ Smoking .....etc long before a RC plane with the explosives of a hand greande kills you.
I mean i could hit someone over the head with a hammer and kill them.... So what. People don't do this. People rarely become terrorists.
It's curious to see so many people arguing against using a remote drone for all kinds of things they're bad at.
A GPS-powered remote drone is good for getting a small payload into an area that is well-protected on the ground. Think government buildings with concrete barriers erected on all the streets around them.
A small payload has to be something very toxic, in any of the WMD categories. Getting those parts is probably much harder than building the delivery vehicle. The only real outcomes would be to make a symbolic building uninhabitable or even with conventional explosives to do a little bit of damnage. Either way, the only point is to send the message, "we can get you," which is what terrorism is about. For all other types of attack they're not cost effective.
Still, I'd be surprised if the White House doesn't have one of those electric rail guns on the roof with a RADAR that's good at detecting small bee-line incomings.
A few years ago an RC plane did a Trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Ireland via GPS. It was a readily avilable hobby-grade model. The only modifications made to it were the elctronics (of course) and much larger fuel tanks. It was running a 20 year old model aircraft engine! I shudder to think what could be possible with something a little larger.
I didnt read all the comments.. .but i belive it is a serious potential weapons, not necessarily for terrorists, but more for conventional army.
Figure this... a rc aircraft with a biological/tnt charge, programmed with a gps autopilot.
It will take off to a very high altitude using a small combustion engine, then shut down the engine and coast to its target.
All this would be happening at night... so we have...
- No infrared light emitted (coz its coasting)
- No sound
- No sight
- No radar
So afaik, tats sometimes potentially unstoppable.
The drawbacks are...
- Since it will have to be coasting, it can only be coasting for so long, so the target most probably must not be to far from the launching point
- The transported charge is not huge. But 50 kb of tnt or even worst biochemical stuff can do some damage. Yet these weapons are unlikely to be used to destroy heavy military equipment, but more for strategic strikes to vulnerable points or population terrorism (hope that never happens)
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