Does the recent drone attack on the Venezuelan President herald a new phase in weaponised UAVs? BILL READ FRAeS analyses the rise of UAVs as offensive weapons.

On Saturday 4 August, Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, was speaking at a military ceremony in the state capital of Caracas to mark the 81st anniversary of the national guard when two drones exploded off near the president's stand. TV footage of the incident shows the president suddenly looking upwards after a bang is heard and soldiers breaking ranks and running away. Seven soldiers are reported to have been injured.

Video footage has been posted on social media claiming to show one of the drones exploding in mid-air but it is not certain whether it is connected with the incident.

According to the Venezuelan Interior Minister, Néstor Reverol, stated that the attack was carried out using two DJI M600 drones, each loaded was filled with 2.2lb of C-4 plastic explosive capable of creating a blast radius of up to 50m.

The DJI MATRICE 600 is a six-bladed commercial drone used by filmmakers and photographers. According to the manufacturer’s specs, The M600 can fly and speeds of up to 40mph and carry a payload of up to 5.5kg. (DJI)

One drone was set to explode above the President while the second was to detonate in front of him. However, the Venezuelan military knocked one of the drones off-course electronically while the second crashed into an apartment building about two blocks from where Maduro was speaking. Reverol has since announced that six ‘terrorists and hired killers’ had been arrested, several vehicles seized and hotels raided.

Security officers surround President Maduro with plastic shields as they escort him away.

At present, the motive for the attack has not yet been determined. The Venezuelan Government has accused the country’s right-wing opposition of carrying out the attack, conspiring with individuals in Miami in the USA and Bogota in Colombia, but has not provided any evidence to support their claims. Both Colombia and the US have denied any involvement.

Venezuela is currently in a financial crisis with an inflation rate close to 13,000% and over 600,000 refugees crossing into Colombia and Brazil. The US is currently imposing economic sanctions on Venezuela. The latest incident is not the first attack on Maduro’s government. In 2017 a rogue police officer used a stolen helicopter to launch grenades at government buildings over Caracas.

Malicious drones

Weaponised drones used in a swarm attack carried out by militants against a Russian air base in Syria. (Russian MoD)

The incident has raised fears that the use of drones to conduct malicious attacks has now reached a new level with the first attempted political assassination. However, the use of UAVs as weapons is nothing new. Military forces have been deploying UCAVs in warfare for a number of years but releasing weapons by RPAS operators is governed by military rules of engagement and authorised through the ‘chain-of-command’ (see (https://www.aerosociety.com/news/should-drone-pilots-get-medals/).

Recent years have seen an exponential rise in incidents involving recreational drones staying both accidently and deliberately into restricted airspace over airports, events or sensitive infrastructure causing safety and security alarms. There was an incident in September 2013 when a public appearance by German Chancellor Angela Merkel was disrupted by a drone flown by a rival political party.

Another trend has been a rise in the use of weaponised commercial drones, particularly by terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida (see DIY air forces, AEROSPACE, August 2018, p30). In the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, IS has made increasing use of weaponised drones fitted with explosives, airborne improvised explosive devices (ABIED) or even missiles to attack military forces. In January this year, Russian forces at Hemeimeem Airbase in Syria were attacked by a swarm of 13 weaponised drones.

The number of potential attacks using drones has also increased, although, so far, none have succeeded. As early as 2001, terrorist group AQ plotted to attack the G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy with explosive devices attached to remote-controlled drones followed by a plot in 2002 to attack the House of Commons with a drone equipped with an anthrax poison device. In 2016, a UK insurance company report warned of the use of weaponised drones by IS against ‘soft targets’ in the country while IS has also been implicated in plans to use drones to spray ‘dirty bomb’ nuclear material over Western cities.

The threat of the use of drones (both armed and unarmed) as weapons is expected to rise further in the future. An report published earlier this year by experts in artificial intelligence (AI) https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1802/1802.07228.pdf) warns that new developments in AI technology will make it easier for ‘malicious actors’ to be able to conduct large scale co-ordinated attacks using swarms of drones. Drones fitted with face recognition software could even target individual people (see https://www.aerosociety.com/news/dangerous-intelligence/).

Counter-drones

President Macron of France examines a Dronegun from US commercial ‘drone security solution’ company, DroneShield. Shortly after the attack in Caracas, DroneShield issued a press release advertising its counter drone systems which it said had already been deployed at an ASEAN meeting of heads of state, several Boston Marathon events, the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics and the 2018 XXI Commonwealth Games. (DroneShield)

So what can be done to counter the increasing drone threat? While the threat and use of drones in airspace incursions and attacks increases, so do the efforts to develop counter-measures. Commercial companies are now marketing a wide variety of counter-UAV (c-UAV) designs, including shooting down, disrupting communication with electronic jammers, using a ground-based launcher or another drone to throw a net over a rogue drone (some with a parachute attached), using RF inhibition technology to create an invisible ‘electronic shield’ over sensitive areas or installing geofencing software into commercial drones so that they will cannot fly into certain areas (see https://www.aerosociety.com/news/defeating-drones/)

However, one problem with counter-UAV devices being used in public areas is the risk of collateral damage – as nearly happened in the Venezuelan attack. Drones can be downed using radio-frequency jammers but these could also disrupt mobile communications. Drones can be shot down but may crash onto buildings or people. There are also issues with civil liberties in that governments might use c-UAV devices under the guise of national security to down drones that were being used for broadcasting.

The RAeS is holding a conference on 29 November on The UK Air Defence Challenge: Weapon Systems for Developing Threats Conference at RAeS HQ in London (https://www.aerosociety.com/events-calendar/the-uk-air-defence-challenge-weapon-systems-for-developing-threats/).

 

Bill Read
10 August 2018

Comment title