Venezuelan Attack Stokes Fresh Drone Fears

 - August 15, 2018, 5:03 PM

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was giving a nationally televised speech August 4 on the Avinida Bolivar in Caracas to hundreds of assembled troops to celebrate the 81st anniversary of the National Guard, a major annual military event. “The time for economic recovery has arrived,” he proclaimed. 

The sentence was punctuated by the first explosion. A commercial-grade DJI Matrice 600 Pro UAS carrying an estimated 2.2 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives detonated 100 yards away. Fourteen seconds later, a second DJI Matrice 600 similarly equipped and apparently off course, crashed into a concrete apartment building two blocks away, blowing a rather substantial hole into it that first responders initially thought was rendered by a natural gas explosion. 

The event so rattled Maduro's government that it announced a week later that it would be willing to accept investigation assistance from the leading federal law enforcement agency of the nation with which it arguably has the worst relations—the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Meanwhile, a group calling itself the “Soldados de Frandela” (the T-shirt Soldiers) took to Twitter to claim responsibility for the failed attack and warned that success was “only a matter of time.” 

That’s creating fresh worries for security experts worldwide who have been tracking the increasing popularity of drones, displacing the Russian AK-47 assault rifle as the weapon of choice for bad actors almost everywhere.  

They point out that Mexican drug cartels are graduating from using drones to routinely carry merchandise to delivering enforcement "messages." Earlier this year they wired two deactivated grenades to one UAV and landed it on the lawn of Baja, California’s state security chief; last October Mexican Federal Police confiscated a quadcopter armed with an improvised explosive device known as a potato bomb (“papas bombas”), a ball-shaped charge mixed with nails and metal shards. UK gangs have fitted drones with infrared sensors to identify rivals’ cannabis grows and either seize the crops or extort the growers. ISIS has made drone bombs a regular part of its retinue. 

Insufficient Countermeasures

In joint testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on June 6, David Glawe, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) undersecretary for intelligence and analysis and DHS general counsel Hayley Chang noted, “We have already seen transnational criminal actors adopt UAS technology to move drugs across the border. Terrorist groups overseas use drones to conduct attacks on the battlefield and continue to plot to use them in terrorist attacks elsewhere. This is a very serious, looming threat that we are currently unprepared to confront. Today we are unable to effectively counter malicious use of drones because we are hampered by federal laws enacted years before UAS technology was available for commercial and consumer use. Public access to these systems, with their current operational capacity and range, was not even conceived of when these laws were adopted.” 

Committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), noted that the number of recorded drone flights over “sensitive” areas grew from eight in 2013 to 1,752 in 2016. 

The malicious use of drones is not new and can be traced back to 1994 when a Japanese cult tried to use a remote-controlled helicopter for a sarin gas attack—but it crashed during testing. Osama bin Laden toyed with the idea of putting IEDs on radio-controlled airplanes as early as 2001. But as Johnson’s cited statistics suggest, as drones became more pervasive and the associated technology improved, so has the risk. Within the last four years, non-military drone threats graduated from theory and attempt to successful missions, in one case killing 23 during a 2014 strike by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Within the last three years, drones have made unauthorized landings on the White House lawn, overflown sensitive U.S. military facilities including based nuclear weapons locations, and landed on U.S. military ships. If drones can penetrate these “hardened” targets, it doesn’t take much imagination to calculate the potential havoc on a soft target. Last year FBI director Christopher Wray told Johnson’s committee that a terrorist drone attack on the U.S. “is coming here imminently.” 

While jamming, energy, and kinetic devices that can defeat drones have been developed, much of this technology largely remains in its nascent stage and deploying it in sufficient quantity would be problematic. As Glawe and Chang pointed out in June, “The potential misuse of UAS presents unique security challenges. In normal security situations, law enforcement personnel can establish protective measures to protect people and property from mobile threats—that is simply not the case with drones as they are able to access areas that people, cars, or other mobile devices cannot. Moreover, the most effective technologies for countering malicious uses of UAS conflict with federal laws enacted long before UAS technology was available for commercial and consumer use.” 

The drones used in the attempted attack on Maduro can carry payloads of up to 13 pounds and have a range of three miles. One pound of C-4 is sufficient to destroy an average American home, according to demolition experts. Drone makers have repeatedly said they can do little to stop malignant applications of their products. It is believed Venezuelan security forces used an RF drone detection system to, in part, thwart the attack.