By James Rogers, October 4, 2019
Let me paint a picture of the near future. Drones, some weighing a few pounds and others a few tons, will flow endlessly back and forth from rural distribution centers to inner-city delivery hubs. Day in and day out, they will drop off our weekly shopping, last-minute presents, and important medicines. Drones might even pick us up from work (or the bar) and take us home in automated airborne Ubers. They will transform our lives. Hundreds, if not thousands, of drones will fly high above towns and cities, bypassing the congested highways and streets currently plagued by traffic.
Put simply, the drone revolution will change the way in which we conceive and comprehend logistics and transportation. Yet not all the changes we see from the global spread of drones will be positive. Drones bring with them a novel set of risks and challenges—and these need to be confronted.
Some of the issues are self-evident and have already begun to cause problems as drone technologies expose unforeseen vulnerabilities within vital national infrastructure. Drones made headlines last month when they were flown at low level alongside cruise missiles to evade Saudi Arabia’s air defenses and knock nearly 6 percent of the world’s oil supply offline. It’s still not clear who committed these attacks, with some suspecting Yemen’s Houthi rebels and others pointing the finger at Iran, but this is the point. Uncertainty is a core part of the drone’s allure. The combination of ever-longer range and remote control allows for a distancing and a deniability when it comes to aggressive drone use. A drone can be above us, next to us, or, horrifyingly, outside our airplane window as we land at an international airport. It is unclear who is controlling any given drone, and there are currently few measures that can effectively trace, track, and disable the eclectic mix of drone systems that populate our skies.
“Drone” has, of course, become a somewhat amorphous term, used to describe a vast array of systems. Yet in all forms, from fixed-wing systems to quadcopters, drones present novel risks to security. These are unlikely to be resolved quickly, if at all.
The warning signs. Even if Yemen’s Houthi rebels did not conduct the September 14 attack, as they claimed, they have been successfully using fixed-wing drones for a while. They began with state support, allegedly from Iran, but soon turned to commercial drone supplies to bolster their arsenal. High-definition cameras, industrial motors, and long-range transmitters all added to the Houthis’ capabilities. Their attacks on oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia in May 2019, assassination of high profile military leaders in Yemen in January 2019, and alleged strikes on national airports in Abu Dhabi in July 2018 and Dubai the following month highlighted the protentional for hostile actors, bolstered by commercially available technology, to cause death and destruction by remote control. Even the most innocuous commercial system can be misused.