WASHINGTON: The drones rigged with high explosives used in a plot targeting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro highlight the risk of drone-enabled attacks that the US has few tools to prevent.
Federal law enforcement and security agencies are prohibited by a variety of laws from using new technologies that can track or disable small drones that pose a threat. Legislation pending in Congress aims to provide agencies with new authorities to mitigate nefarious drones, which security experts say are sure to become a more frequent threat in the future.
“There’s a huge heap of trouble in our future in the form of off-the-shelf drones, and we’re not taking it seriously enough,” said Hugh Gusterson, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Two drones rigged with explosives detonated near Maduro while he delivered a speech in Caracas on Saturday, causing a panic in a military parade. Maduro, who was unharmed, claimed afterwards that the attack was an assassination plot backed by political rivals. Venezuelan officials said two small unmanned aircraft were each carrying a kilogram of C-4 plastic explosive, and that six people were arrested.
The attack is the kind of threat that security experts and US officials alike have long warned was on the horizon, and could embolden other bad actors, said Jeff Price, an aviation security consultant and professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
As his soldiers fled wildly, Maduro’s vulnerability was exposed
“Now that’s been tried I think we’re going to see a lot more people trying it,” he said.
The Secret Service has electronic jamming capabilities as part of the US presidential motorcade, Price said. That prevents drones from flying too close to the president, but, he added, “it’s very likely that if they can’t take control of it then it’s going to drop out of the sky onto somebody’s head.”
Senior Homeland Security officials said the Venezuela attack reinforces why the department needs new authorities to combat threatening drones. One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they have not encountered instances of explosive or otherwise dangerous payloads delivered by drone in the US, while terror groups and criminal organizations have conducted such actions overseas.
At the same time, the department has seen increasing use of drones along the southern US border by drug traffickers and instances of unmanned vehicles interfering with US Coast Guard operations, the official said.
The agency acknowledged the threat in written testimony for a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee in June signed by David Glawe, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, and Hayley Chang, the department’s deputy general counsel.
“This is a very serious, looming threat that we are currently unprepared to confront,” the officials wrote. “Today we are unable to effectively counter malicious use of drones because we are hampered by federal laws.”
Gusterson said the Venezuelan incident exemplifies the risk of drones being used to target individuals. The threat could come from hobbyists using small drones available in retail stores or by state actors targeting enemies with advanced drones equipped with facial recognition software that state actors, including the US, could use to target their enemies, he said.
“I don’t know that we’re there yet but it’s not hard to imagine being there within a few years,” he said.
Venezuelan officials said the plot was partly foiled by government signal blockers to jam nearby airwaves used by drones and other devices, including cell phones.
Other technologies can force a threatening drone to the ground with electro-magnetic signals sent from rifle-like devices, or ensnare them in nets fired from the ground or deployed by another drone, but those but have not yet been approved for widespread use beyond military applications, Price said.
“We need to see more certification and deployment of the anti-drone technologies, but that’s something that the US has really been dragging its feet on,” he said.
The Venezuelan attack comes after drones have already been used by terrorist organizations to deliver explosive payloads in the Middle East and by criminals to smuggle drugs into prisons. In 2015, Secret Service agents recovered a small drone flown by a hobbyist that had crashed on the grounds of the White House.
Legislation introduced by Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, would lift restrictions on drone countermeasures that are currently in place. The bill, co-sponsored by Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri, North Dakotan Heidi Heitkamp and Doug Jones of Alabama, was approved by a committee and could be included in the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration re-authorization bill.
The bill would give the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department the authority to monitor and track drones without consent of the operator. It also would allow the agencies to “seize or exercise control” of the devices, if necessary.
Drone tracking plan moves US delivery by air closer to reality
The Venezuela plot shows how small unmanned aircraft systems could be used to target individuals, Gusterson said. Drone-enabled attacks targeting large public gatherings such as sporting events or political rallies are an even bigger concern, he said.
“One of the first steps in combating this is making sure that any drone in any airspace can be identified, and the US has not taken any measure to do that,” he said.
Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a Virginia-based trade group for drone manufacturers, said in a statement the industry is working with policymakers on ways to ensure drones are used safely.
Drones must “be equipped with remote identification technology, which will enhance the security of the national airspace and allow law enforcement officials to quickly identify, track and apprehend operators acting carelessly, recklessly, maliciously or illegally,” Wynne said.
Law enforcement and homeland security agencies have demanded the drone-identification tools before allowing more widespread uses, such as permitting flights over people. The FAA is finalizing a proposal for an identification requirement and expects to release it for public comment later this year.
Having a mandatory identification beacon is key to protecting against intentional attacks and inadvertent flights into prohibited areas, the law enforcement groups argued to FAA.