The Rise of Consumer Drones Threat
By Dr. Claudio Palestini, Emerging Security Challenges Division, NATO HQ
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as drones, have been one of the most rapidly advancing technologies developed in the last decade. While remotely-piloted aircraft have been traditionally used by the military and, on a lower scale, by other professional communities and aero-amateurs, UAS technology has experienced an incredible commercial momentum gain over the last five years. This is due to extraordinary technological advances, the rise of sophisticated but low-cost products and the emergence of a vibrant community of users, as well as businesses that are developing new applications in this field.
As a result, the UAS market has grown exponentially in the recent years, from USD 4.5 billion in 2016, to USD 17.82 billion in 2017 and to the expected volume of USD 100 billion by the year 2020.1 The US Federal Aviation Authority has estimated that there will be more than 1.2 million drones by the end of 2018 in the US, with an annual growth rate of around 40%.2 In Europe, experts from Airbus predict that, by 2035, the skies above Paris will be filled with around 20,000 UAS per hour.3 From the technology point of view, new trends like swarming, autonomy, better endurance and higher payloads, night vision and more integrated and compact sensors are on the horizon.
While these technologies open outstanding possibilities, these developments have not gone unnoticed by criminals, who have started to use this technology for illegal purposes. Even more threateningly, terrorists have increasingly misused consumer and recreational UAS to plan, prepare and execute attacks on Allies and partners’ forces. For example, several open-source reports have proven the capability of terrorist groups, like the Islamic State (IS), to customize Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology and to weaponize both fixed-wing and rotary-wing UAS.4 On the civilian side, recent events at Gatwick Airport demonstrated the capability of a small commercial UAS to induce a complete shutdown of an airport, causing the cancellation of several flights and the loss of tens of millions GBP. At the same time it generated vast media attention.5
Challenges to Allies and Partner Nations
Terrorist misuse of UAS poses a number of challenges to Allies’ and partner nations’ preparedness both in theatres of operations and in their own homelands. These challenges stem from the asymmetric nature of the threat and can be grouped in three main areas: technological challenges, cost-effectiveness and rules of engagement.
Technological Challenges. From the technological point of view, coping with this threat encompasses a number of challenges throughout the entire kill chain (detection, identification, tracking, engagement and finally exploitation of any information extracted from the captured UAS for intelligence purposes). From the detection point of view, traditional radars are typically designed to target large and fast-moving objects and are ill-suited to detect Low, Slow, Small (LSS) UAS, which are filtered out due to their low radar cross-section. Additionally, low-altitude UAS can escape detection by hiding within the environment and behind buildings, trees or other objects. Finally, radio-frequency detection systems are based on libraries of known UAS signatures, but these can become ineffective in case of UAS with customized command and control features. The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G technology, which will open up the possibility to operate UAS via the internet from everywhere in the world, will make radio-frequency detection techniques useless and the detection challenge even more complicated.
From the engagement point-of-view, radio-frequency countermeasures, like jammers, could turn out to be ineffective in cases where UAS fly with automatic flight patterns and use inertial navigation systems or visual aided navigation. Furthermore, consumer UAS, as well as other commercial-based technologies, are progressing at a pace faster than traditional military capability development, making it difficult for military forces to ensure the availability of effective countermeasures in a timely fashion. In this scenario, only a scalable, integrated, multi-layered system of systems is likely to be effective.
Cost-Effectiveness. On the other hand, considering cost effectiveness, challenges arise as these Counter-UAS (C-UAS) systems are typically much more expensive than the threat itself, making unpractical the widespread adoption of sophisticated and expensive capabilities to counter low-cost and fast-evolving threats.
Rules of Engagement. Finally, defining rules of engagement for countering misuse of UAS is also an issue, as there is a need to consider a number of risks when operating these systems: potential collateral damage, coordination with civilian agencies and sharing of responsibilities with host-nation authorities. This is especially important in urban environments where use of countermeasures could impose risks on the civilian population.
Accordingly, development efforts are needed in several areas, including testing and deployment of innovative capabilities to cope with the challenges above. These efforts should span across the full spectrum of Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel, Facilities and Interoperability (DOTMLPFI) and should consider the entire kill chain. It is clear that such an effort would require access to several areas of expertise and different communities within Allied nations. For this reason, a cross-dimensional approach has been proposed within NATO and recently endorsed at Defence Ministerial level.
Recognizing that preventing, protecting, and recovering from such attacks requires a coherent and holistic approach, NATO Defence Ministers have endorsed at their meeting in February 2019 the establishment of a practical framework to C-UAS with the objectives of supporting the development of capabilities by Allies and bringing coherence to NATO’s current ongoing efforts.
The practical framework is intended to be developed in a short time frame to cope with a very rapid technological lifecycle and aims to include a continuous effort of research, development and exercises, leveraging national, multinational and NATO ongoing activities. This will allow personnel to be trained to experiment and exercise countermeasures with detection, identification, tracking and engagement systems in field conditions. Ultimately this will ensure interoperability and serve as a proof of concept for fielding an integrated and comprehensive C-UAS capability.
The Emerging Security Challenges Division in NATO is managing the Defence Against Terrorism Programme of Work (DAT POW) and is supporting the execution of this framework with a number of initiatives and exercises to be carried out in the near future. These include the comparative analysis between non-lethal and lethal effectors to counter LSS UAS, the demonstration of an integrated system for the management and detection of cooperative and non-cooperative UAS, and the demonstration of a new cognitive radar technology to improve detection in urban areas.
is working as a Counter-Terrorism Officer at NATO Headquarter, within the Emerging Security Challenges Division. He deals with topics such as countering terrorist misuse of technologies and manages projects in the Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme and Defence Against Terrorism Programme of Work (DAT PoW). Before joining NATO, he has worked in European Union institutions, dealing with the satellite navigation programme Galileo and the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) Deployment. He holds a PhD in telecommunication engineering from University of Bologna (Italy).