Droning America: The Tech Our Enemies Can Buy

Quad 2

In American defense circles, there has been a great deal of discussion about the role of drones; specifically how drones may play in support of a wide range of our military missions.  But we also need to start asking how potential enemies will use drones against us.   While it is impossible to know for sure, a glance at the commercial drone technology that can easily be purchased by our enemies paints a frightening picture.

As with aviation in the 1920s and 1930s, many advances in drone technology will come from the commercial sector for civilian applications – and thus be much faster than the Pentagon’s development cycle.

The fact that civilians are often ahead of the Pentagon in a number of fields is not new.  A decade ago, a team of hobbyists flew a small hobby aircraft, the “Spirit of Butts,” across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland. The aircraft was autonomous except for takeoff and landing, used less than 1 gallon of fuel, and had almost no metal parts.   This year a combined team of industry engineers and academics built a much larger drone that crossed the Atlantic using only 6 gallons of fuel.

What is new is global commercialization.   There are websites that allow for crowd source designing and 3D printing of drones.   Fixed wing drones are already being used to chase hurricanes, spray crops on steep hillsides, monitor traffic, and conduct 3D mapping missions.  Quadcopters are being used by filmmakers, sports photographers, real estate agents, and even wedding photographers to provide gyro-stabilized and GPS rectified imagery.

Obviously with the wide variety of commercial applications, entrepreneurs are hustling to provide both products and services.  Xproheli, for example, sells quadcopters complete with simulators, training programs, inexpensive training aircraft, and a full line of operational aircraft. Watch their videos, and note the stability of the platforms, clarity of the pictures, and precision of the flying.

While these particular quadcopters are rated for very light loads and short duration, the technology is scalable to lift loads from a few ounces to over a hundred pounds.  But even a payload of a few pounds is more than enough to lift an explosively-formed projectile IED.  And this is achievable at the low end of the cost and technology spectrums.

The convergence of multiple new and old technologies will create cheap, lethal, precise, and autonomous weapons.  As we learned painfully in Iraq, explosively-formed projectiles are far more deadly than conventional IEDs.  In 2009, the Army told CNN that explosively-formed projectiles can penetrate four inches of armor from 300 feet.  Further, these weapons have already been mounted and tested on an autonomous ground vehicle.  Clearly they can be mounted on a flying drone too and it would not even need to get that close to its target.

Rapid developments in the field of nano-energetics (a polite name for explosives) have the potential to dramatically increase the killing power of IEDs.  Unclassified government reports indicate that researchers have created nano-explosives with two times the power-per-unit of weight as conventional explosives. These new explosives paired with the older self-forging projectiles will make lighter and more powerful IEDs.

A third technology that will lead to wider availability and lower prices in drones is 3D printing, or additive manufacturing.   Numerous companies and even some college students  are currently printing drones. Many videos show students using drones to drop water balloons, but some individuals are much more ambitious. Inevitably, young male hobbyists have started experimenting with using drones to drop home-made bombs.  This video shows a hobbyist who is not only dropping explosive devices but has figured out how to how embed proximity fuses in his bombs. Now imagine the target is an aircraft on the ground, a fuel depot, or a vehicle.  If the weapon is upgraded to a self forging projectile, penetration of the top of armored vehicles will be possible.

Everyone developing drones is also experimenting with artificial intelligence to provide truly autonomous systems.  On YouTube, researchers are sharing information on how to teach a system to optically identify and track vehicles. The hobbyists’ efforts are magnified by the large commercial market for artificial intelligence for the surveillance industry.   We can be sure optical and thermal identification software will rapidly improve.

Finally, improvements in battery and fuel gel technologies are accelerating.  Recently, the U.S. Navy used fuel gel to keep a drone aloft for 48 hours. But a more likely possibility for expanded drone capability lies in battery developments.  Every industry from personal devices to electric vehicles to clean power is investing heavily in improving battery performance.  As evidenced by the rapid increases in laptop battery life, these efforts are paying off.

Nor is the commercialization limited to aircraft drones.  While aircraft operate in the simplest environment, businesses, hobbyists, and academics are pursuing the use of drones in the more complex land, sea, and underwater environments.  For only $6000, students built a maritime surface drone that is currently making its way from Rhode Island to Spain.  On the opposite coast, a commercial company built a wave-powered, GPS guided, surface drone that crossed the Pacific.  Their drones are designed to accept a variety of sensor payloads on long endurance missions.  They can be configured to search for fish, survey for oil companies, or monitor ocean conditions for scientists.  The platforms could just as easily carry weapons.    In addition, navies around the world are researching autonomous sub-surface systems — but so are academic research institutions.  No points for guessing which source will provide the most inexpensive, effective, simple systems.

While all this is very interesting to techno-geek hobbyists, why should national security professionals be interested?  Quite simply, the most effective weapons used against western forces in the last decade made use of commercially available technology.   We have expended billions in trying to protect our forces from stationary IEDs, what will be the cost to defend ourselves from mobile, autonomous IEDs?  How do you protect large transport aircraft on the ground, ammunition and fuel dumps, or even moving armored or supply vehicles from low-signature, autonomous, cheap, swarming weapons?

Today, we have hobbyists building trans-oceanic, GPS-enabled, gyro-stabilized drones.  Others are using drones to drop bombs.  The convergence of drone technology, nano-materials, nano-explosives, battery technology, and autonomous operating systems means that the range, payload, accuracy, and even stealth of these platforms will increase exponentially over the next decade.   Obviously, the potential for combining the various types of drones with GPS and optical tracking of targets and self-forging projectiles is enormous.

Are we, as a force that uses large, high signature, easily recognizable platforms such as aircraft, armored vehicles, and trucks, prepared for the widespread use of simple, autonomous drones?  Given the low cost and wide dissemination of the knowledge, software, and hardware, we have to assume both state and non-state actors will use these against us.   For example, with technology available and accessible today, militants could build drones in Pakistan and attack Bagram Airfield.  Domestically, a group or individual could build a fleet of drones in West Virginia or Ohio and use them to attack commercial aircraft taking off and landing at major airports on the eastern seaboard.  John Arquilla’s concept of cheap, swarming, autonomous vehicles may be coming much sooner than we hoped.  One immediate implication, we need to rethink our heavy investment in limited numbers of highly capable but extremely expensive platforms.  More immediately, we should begin to think about defending our bases and operating units from the cheap and ubiquitous assault of small but deadly drones.


T.X. Hammes is a WOTR contributor and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He served 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.