by Cristiana Era
Forget the nice radio remote-control helicopters you used to buy to your children just few years ago for Christmas or for birthdays. Those were just toys. Today we live in the age of drones, in which we have been thrown almost unnoticeably. In less than a decade the remote-control technology has radically changed and it is now approaching its full “operational” development stage. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are gradually revealing their multidimensional capacity as dual-use tools. As it was for internet at its embryonic stage, until recently drone technology was restricted to the military environment and few connoisseurs. Largely employed in areas of crisis, like Afghanistan and Iraq, to target terrorist groups or as reconnaissance and information gathering, until recently remote controlled aerial vehicles did not find a widespread civil use.
But sooner or later, any dual-use device is naturally moving towards an open space as its applications in civil society becomes more and more attractive for businesses. And for the public sector as well, given the significant array of public services in which drones are being employed: from disaster relief support, to aerial security surveillance, from shipment of life-saving medicines to crops irrigation, from missing people search to film shooting and city traffic control. And, of course, their equipment of sensors, high-resolution cameras and GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) make drones an excellent versatile tool for intelligence, data collection and analysis in real time.
This process, though, does not come without side effects. Restricted and sensitive environments are by nature endowed with high standards of security, but once technology applications are extended to the open market, security is no more a foregone pivotal element. The hyper-connected world – the IoT (Internet of Things) – offers a number of examples of security-deficient devices, from smartphone apps to vehicle automation systems. Drones are no exception. So, if in places like Rwanda, where it can takes hours before an ambulance can reach the hospital from a village while they are able to deliver blood and plasma sacs in less than fifteen minutes and save lives, or like Thailand where they can fly through strict passages inside a cave and provide crucial support to rescue squads looking for a missing soccer team, drones are also a growing security concern for government authorities, either from a military or a civil perspective.
As Iraq confirmed, the threat is actually a “clear and present” danger. The Islamic State has resort to an extensive use of drones to target American soldiers on the ground and several government agencies (DARPA, among them) are sponsoring special projects on ways and means to neutralize drones carrying explosive devises. What American troops experienced on the ground in distant and critical areas is actually an example of what we can expect to happen domestically in the near future. Terrorists do not need an expensive Predator or Reaper-like drone to carry on an unexpected and devastating attack in a crowded spot, be it a stadium, a mall, a beach or any sort of gathering place. A simple off-the-shelf quadcopter, easily bought on internet for a few hundred euros and eventually loaded with explosive or with toxic material will suffice. Furthermore, many of the ready available drones can easily avoid detection due to the plastic material they are made of.
Terrorists are not the only malicious actors who can get the most from UAV technology. Common criminals have successfully exploited these devices to drop down drugs and other kinds of illegal items inside detention facilities or to facilitate jail breakout. And there is more: these little mobile and flying devices can be used for espionage, not just as a plain spy tool but also by its being hacked, since at this stage – and like many applications of the IoT – drones are not designed to offer a high level of security. Control of a drone can be an easy task, and if it is connected to a wireless system of a company, this can have a negative impact and interfere with the network, in addition to the loss of data inside the drone itself; or it can fly over a crowded place and through the wireless connection steal personal data of all those who are connected.
And besides the intent of malicious individuals or groups, let’s think of a fleet of small quadcopters crossing the airplanes lanes. It is not a hypothetical issue: several cases of drones causing incidents with civilian aircrafts have been reported and have forced the American FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to address a pressing need for drone circulation rules and public safety preservation. If a small UAV can be “swallowed up” by the engine of a crossing aircraft causing the latter to crush, imagine what a bunch of them can do to compromise aerial circulation.
So far, drones have not developed their full potential. Their flying autonomy and – as we have already mentioned – device security are low. For the latter, we should not expect a big development in the short time. Device security requires significant investments and, again, small commercial UAVs are not conceived to be endowed with a high protection from hacking activities. On the first issue, instead, the private sector is already working on development of specific long-lasting batteries and progress on that will be reached very soon, especially because the commercial exploitation of drones is rising with expected significant revenues. The attention on commercial exploitation of UAV is so high at present, that several companies, like Ehang, Volocopter and Uber, are already competing on the development of AAV (Autonomous Aerial Vehicle) prototypes, the first step towards the unmanned flying taxis.