Civilian drone technology has made incredible advancements over the last few years. In the coming years, advanced drone technology will benefit several unique industries. In agriculture, drones equipped with sensors can assess crop health and support precision farming. Infrastructure and construction industries can create destruction mapping, determine the feasibility of a project through aerial data and conduct property surveys. Environmentalists can use drones to assess wildfire potential, estimate biomass and understand the effects of droughts.
Drones also have a growing role in aid delivery, as they can deliver to hard-to-reach locations. Developments and advances in artificial intelligence, including machine learning, neural networks, and computer vision, have been revolutionary in drone advancement. As Moore’s Law suggests, microprocessors have reduced in size and cost while increasing in capability, allowing for a microprocessor tied with edge computing and logic and open source software to make decisions, execute complex tasks, and self-heal.
All of the advancements in drone technology that make for better speed, precision, and autonomy will ideally be used for good but inevitably allow for nefarious actors to use home-brewed drones to the detriment of civilians.
Civilian drones' advanced capabilities pose a considerable challenge for regulators, as they try to get ahead of the danger that drones can cause if used by nefarious actors while also allowing for users' freedom of use and right to their property and technology. Some countries have already enacted laws regulating drones, and more are likely to follow suit. Due to the complex nature of regulating drones, most of the regulation has fallen into the hands of the drone manufacturers, who have end-user licensing agreements with their customers.
The drone industry has started equipping drones with unique IDs that are registered through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA can integrate drones into the National Airspace System (NAS) by registering drones. Remote ID provides identification and location information to help the FAA, law enforcement, and other federal agencies to find the control operator when a drone flies in an area it is not supposed to or poses a threat.
Home-made drone systems are created by procuring pieces online that allow for equipment identification to be avoided. Drones’ advanced flight capabilities, which operate through GPS via the operation of a flight controller, can measure characteristics of the drone's flight path and surroundings to perform functions such as hold, autonomous flight, return to home, and waypoint navigation.
Suppose a GPS control is severed, but the drone has a mission plan; the drone can continue flying at a per-designated path without direct control from its commander because it already knows its mission from the mission plan. In that case, there is no Radio Frequency (RF) sensor from that drone, and it defaults to an Internal Navigation System (INS) and knows how fast it is going, its altitude, and direction. A mission plan allows for waypoints to make up a structured plan that can control all aspects of the operation or upload the mission to the drone for later execution of the mission.
When assessing a drone's size, weight, and power, the flight time and distance to a location can be determined, allowing for missions to be completed with high accuracy, without the direct operation of a human.
These advancements in drone mission capabilities are beneficial to both industry operators using drones for a practical task and nefarious actors looking to use drones to cause harm. If a terrorist or criminal were to install software onto a commercial drone that allowed for autonomous mission planning operations without an RF sensor, explosives, weapons, or surveillance could reach a target with high accuracy and little chance of being caught or intercepted.
Drone technology is advancing in both civilian and military drones of all sizes. Onyx Industries conducted an overview of the evolution of small drone technology that includes information about counter-drone technology and the implications that small drones can have on defense and critical infrastructure.
Modified drones are already being used in various harmful and unlawful ways. One of the most severe risks posed by drones is their capacity to be utilized as weapons in crowded places. Drones can be equipped with a variety of different weapons, including explosives, chemical agents, and even firearms.
Another serious concern is the use of drones for illegal surveillance. Drones can be equipped with high-powered cameras and other sensors that allow them to gather detailed information about individuals and their activities. Collected surveillance information could violate an individual’s privacy or determine sensitive details about when a person or their property is most vulnerable.
The most common criminal use of drones is to deliver contraband, like SIM cards, drugs, and phones, to prison windows or over prison yard walls. While many reported drone incidents today seem harmless, home-made drones' have the potential to cause mass destruction and casualty if used by nefarious actors.
Governments should consider such a threat as part of national security strategy, as should event venues and other civilian gathering areas as part of security operations.
The ability for drones to be repurposed to be used with malicious intent for little investment makes home-made drones a likely next step by nefarious actors, terrorist organizations, and criminals.
In January 2022, a drone was seen flying near the Cincinnati Bengals football field during their playoff game against the Las Vegas Raiders. According to the FAA guidelines, drones are prohibited from flying near NFL stadiums before, during, and after events. A drone expert called this incident “extremely dangerous”.
In 2020 an illegally operated drone temporarily halted flight operations at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. The drone was spotted 1,500 feet in the air, which was well above the 400-foot legal altitude for a small, unmanned, civilian drone. No one was caught or charged in the operation of the drone.
In Colorado, in 2020 a drone flown by a hobbyist sparked a wildfire that ended up burning 9 acres of land near Colorado Springs. The drone crashed into dry terrain after malfunctioning and required more than 30 firefighters to be contained.
Civilian drone technology has come a long way in a short time, and the coming years promise even more amazing advancements. However, with these advancements come new risks that must be understood and mitigated.
Home-made drones can be outfitted with dangerous weapons, and be used for harmful and unlawful purposes. We must be aware of these dangers and take steps to prevent them from becoming reality. It is up to industry and government to create regulations for civilian drone technology that keep people safe and mitigate threats without infringing on freedom of use or stippling innovation.
Learn how Onyx Red Teaming can evaluate your security and defenses against UAS and help you protect your infrastructure against emerging technological threats.