Cheap drones take center stage in Ukraine war, raising concerns about misuse in United States

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  • Ukrainian fighters have been using cheap consumer drones to attack Russian invaders
  • The Biden Administration is ramping up protections against drone attacks and potentially expanding who can deploy jamming systems
  • Experts say there have been relatively few malicious attacks, and it’s important to distinguish “the careless, the clueless and the criminal.”

At first, it looks like something out of a video game or a movie: A pair of hands holding a cheap drone controller as its small screen shows a grenade falling toward a soldier standing on ground.

And then there’s an explosion below.

But unlike a game or movie, this is a real-life $1,000 consumer-grade drone that’s been modified to drop explosives on Russian troops and fighting vehicles. And devices like it are being used daily following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Videos of such attacks are widely available on Twitter, proudly shared by Ukrainian fighters and their supporters. Unlike the sophisticated drones that many militaries use, the drones are widely available at stores like Best Buy, easily modified and hacked to turn them into lethal weapons.

And experts say such drones are opening up a new front for both warfare and terror attacks. Now, the Biden Administration is expanding its efforts to protect nuclear power plants, hydroelectric dams, airports and other critical U.S. infrastructure from attacks that would have been virtually impossible 10 years ago. 

The administration this week announced plans for a comprehensive review of anti-drone efforts, from enforcement and technology to which federal, state and local agencies should be able to use them.

“We will never fight another war without handheld consumer drones,” said Brett Velicovich, a former U.S. Army special operations intelligence operative who recently visited Ukraine to watch how fighters are using drones. “From my experiences, the U.S. has a larger problem than most people realize and we need to put laws in place to protect our infrastructure before it’s too late. Otherwise what will happen is we will be responding to a drone attack in the U.S. and the public will be asking why we didn’t do something before.”

China-based DJI, the world’s largest consumer drone manufacturer, announced this week it was halting sales of its drones in both Russia and Ukraine over concerns they were being weaponized. Although Ukrainian fighters have been using drones like those made by DJI to drop explosives, experts say the vast majority of their use has been for tracking troop movements and sighting.

In a decade, drones have revolutionized aerial photography, building and bridge inspections, even how Midwestern farmers monitor their vast fields of corn or wheat. But the speed of their development and adoption, driven largely by cheap, sophisticated computer chips and powerful battery-powered electric motors, has in some cases leapfrogged regulators’ ability to manage them. That’s in part because drones are sometimes treated like airplanes despite being far smaller, cheaper and easier to fly.

And so far most of the danger has come from over-eager enthusiasts caught flying over crowds, wildfires and even the bubbling hot springs in Yellowstone National Park. Last February, the FBI warned at least 27 drone pilots in response to violating a no-fly zone around the Super Bowl in Tampa, and arrested one man who ignored the rules.

Experts including Velicovich worry cities, utilities and power-plants across U.S. are unprepared for deliberate attacks like those seen in Ukraine, or the March 2021 attack on a Saudi oil refinery by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that caused multiple fires.

Many companies offer anti-drone technology, from net launchers and modified shotguns to electronic jammers that allow someone to hijack the control signals and force a drone to land. But so far, both regulations and anti-drone efforts are largely piecemeal, and handled almost entirely by the federal government. Federal officials have asserted their right to regulate drones in the same way they regulate airplanes and helicopters, meaning local authorities have little power to intervene.

“I could land a drone on the lawn of the White House tomorrow and they couldn’t do a thing to stop me,” Velicovich said, stressing that he was speaking hypothetically. “The U.S. government doesn’t truly understand the full extent at which small, consumer, cheap drones can be used to attack infrastructure.”

Today, only a handful of federal and local agencies have permission to use anti-drone technology, in part because some of the systems can inadvertently interfere with legitimate flights, jam cell phone signals or disrupt GPS navigation.

Drone experts say pilots in the United States have a growing track record of responsible use, and are pushing to ensure any new rules passed by Congress reflect that.

“The reality that the overwhelming majority of drone operators are safe and compliant, and that is true of both commercial and recreational users,” said Michael Robbins, the executive vice president of government and public affairs for Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International, the world’s largest drone industry group. “There’s always going to be bad actors with any technology, any instrument. So the government needs to have tools to address that.”

He added: “I mean, a stick is a stick until some uses it as a bludgeon to hit someone. And that can be applied to any technology.”

Tommy Kenville, the CEO of North Dakota-based ISight Drone Services, said he’s surprised more drones haven’t been used maliciously. ISight has 30 pilots and specializes in agricultural, pipeline and wind turbine inspections, and recently bought a drone capable of flying for up to seven hours continuously — something more commonly seen in military drones like Reapers and Predators.

“If the drone gets in the wrong hands, you could do a lot of damage,” he said.

Still, Kenville said he’s been pleased with how responsive the FAA has been in the last few years when it comes to permitting his pilots to fly drones beyond the horizon — which is normally illegal in the United States — or operating in populated areas. “I do think society has come a long way in understanding their uses,” he said.

And Jonathan Rupprecht, a Florida lawyer and drone pilot, said he’s skeptical that hostile adversaries would be able to attack U.S. infrastructure successfully with drones. He said it’s far more likely they could be used to cause minor power disruptions or inconveniences, particularly if someone was flying near an airport, forcing commercial aircraft to stay grounded. In December 2018, repeated reported drone sightings near Gatwick Airport outside London prompted the disruption of about 1,000 flights.

Rupprecht said he expects federal officials will ultimately have to delegate more enforcement to local police departments.

“The reality you either have to have a lot more federal agents or come up with a way that state and local people can be deputized as federal agent,” he said. “From an efficacy standpoint, you need state and local be able to stop and arrest people.”

But Rupprecht said he’s also more worried about police departments violating Americans’ 4th Amendment rights, either by tracking them via drone, or via a new FAA rule requiring that most drones broadcast their unique ID, location and speed, and where they took off from so that federal officials can monitor their location — even if they’re being flown in your own backyard. Rupprech has represented drone pilots objecting to the FAA tracking requirement, which is not applied to airplanes in the same way.

“We can’t say we’re going to forego the benefits of drones because there are a few bad examples,” he said. “We have to make a distinction between the careless, the clueless and the criminal.”