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Hinman Pulse

September 30, 2014

Preparing for an Autonomous Future: Drones

by Hinman Team

(Photo credit: http://dronewithme.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/choisir-drone.jpg)

While military drones have revolutionized modern warfare and made drone a politically and ethically loaded term in the past decade, smaller types of drones are about to start reshaping how we think about and regulate the space above our heads. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) made for personal and commercial use, which predominantly take the form of multi-rotor copters and small planes, are poised to become a big part of our lives in the near future. However, as these autonomous aerial vehicles become more prevalent, they have the potential to become a new threat for security and anti-terrorism experts to consider.

Drones made for personal and commercial use are on the verge of becoming an estimated $8 billion industry annually. Personal drones, which are getting cheaper and easier to operate, are being flown by hobbyists to shoot breathtaking aerial videos (you can find a seemingly endless stream of them on YouTube). Commercially, drones are already being used to survey crop yields for farmers, inspect miles of oil and gas pipelines in the wilderness, and evaluate building damage after disasters. Amazon famously announced plans to use autonomous copters to deliver packages in the future. Facebook and Google have indicated interest in nonstop, solar powered drones to bring about universal wireless internet coverage.

The only thing holding back our autonomous aerial future, and perhaps with good reason, is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Under the current rules, commercial drones can only be used with a permit approved by the FAA. Personal drones must be kept at an altitude under 400 feet, and cannot be flown in populated areas or within 3 miles of an airport. Under pressure from industry leaders and Congress, the FAA is struggling to implement new guidelines that will allow commercial drones to operate freely without compromising on safety standards. A law passed two years ago mandates that the FAA open up the skies to commercial drones by September 2015, which will be the first step in a new era of automated aviation in domestic airspace. While increased use of UAV technology will undoubtedly revolutionize many industries for the better, the potential for drones to become a surveillance device for illegal activity or a delivery system for an explosive device will have to be assessed by security experts.

Drones are able to support a payload of up to 20 pounds, and as they are further designed to deliver goods, their ability to carry heavier packages will only improve. Even as currently designed, a commercially available UAV could deliver a small explosive device with a high level of precision in three dimensions. Drone manufacturers have already created software to make UAVs fully autonomous; any drone operator with a smartphone can enter GPS coordinates for his or her device to follow. This would allow a possible aggressor to pinpoint the device to a sensitive area while remaining miles away. 

Most drones are too small to be picked up on radar, and there is currently no licensing system for UAVs, making it very difficult to trace illegal drone use to the operator. Even if a licensing system is implemented by the FAA, computer scientists have shown that commercially available drones can be hacked with relative ease. Additionally, the FAA has so far been incapable of comprehensively enforcing its rules. Footage from drones flying in crowded population centers is all over the internet, and the FAA and NASA have reported dozens of near-misses between drones and passenger planes.

Even for a relatively small explosive charge, the standoff distance to a target is a critical aspect of protective blast design. If a drone hovered outside of a window or landed on the roof of a building while carrying even a small bomb, the damage could be significant. For this reason, the UFC anti-terrorism/force protection (ATFP) minimum standards discourage standoff distances less than 13 feet for new facilities and do not allow outside access to roofs. In general, designing a building to resist a small explosive threat that could hover within a few feet of the façade anywhere on the building would be cost prohibitive.

As autonomous vehicles become more common in our everyday lives, they will become more inconspicuous and less worthy of scrutiny. Additionally, an autonomous vehicle as an explosive delivery method has the potential to remove the risk of arrest for a would-be terrorist or the need for a suicide bomber. As Google is in the process of developing and testing self-driving cars, the FBI has filed an internal report bringing up the possibility that the vehicles could be reprogrammed to become delivery systems for explosives.

With the FAA poised to open up American airspace to drones within a year and technology companies racing to take to the skies, it seems that we are currently unprepared to take on the regulatory and safety challenges presented by these autonomous aerial vehicles. While drones represent a bold and futuristic new industry, they also pose a threat as an explosive delivery system or surveillance device. The FAA, law enforcement, and security experts will need to work with industry leaders to craft a legal and tactical solution that allows the drone industry to flourish without compromising on safety.

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