Advanced drones capable of carrying sophisticated imaging equipment and significant payloads pose a serious threat to nuclear power plants and other high-profile targets, says a report released on Jan. 11 by The Remote Control Project.

Analysts for Open Briefing, a London-based civil society intelligence agency, compiled the report. The group reviewed 202 commercially available drones (Figure 1) as part of the project, but it said that a drone user, such as a terrorist group, seeking greater payload capacity, flight time, and range would most likely build customized equipment from individual components designed for a specific purpose.

1. Quadcopter drone.
This image shows a DJI Phantom unmanned aerial vehicle. Although its payload is very small, the latest model—Phantom 3—is available for less than $500. Courtesy: Don McCullough

The Threat

The report lists many examples of drones being used for potentially threatening purposes. It says that unidentified drones have been flown over multiple nuclear power plants in France and that one drone carrying radioactive sand from Fukushima actually landed on the Japanese prime minister’s office in Tokyo last year. Although these particular instances seem to be more nuisance-like activities, the potential for serious consequences is alarming.

The Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah is said to have the longest history of drone use by a nonstate actor. It reportedly maintains a small fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and has allegedly even loaded some with explosive payloads for the purpose of attacking Israeli military targets. As reported by CNN in 2014, an Iranian news agency claimed an armed Hezbollah UAV was used in an attack—combined with fire from ground troops—killing 23 Syrian militants and wounding 10 others, so it is not inconceivable that terrorists could attempt an attack using UAVs.

In addition to UAVs, however, unmanned marine vehicles (UMVs) also pose a threat to potential power industry targets. Many power plants are sited on the shores of oceans, rivers, and lakes because they require large water supplies for cooling. That opens an avenue for potential terrorist attacks from the water. According to the Open Briefing report, some UMVs are capable of carrying payloads of up to 1,000 kg of explosives—which is more than three times the amount said to have been used by al-Qaida to bomb the USS Cole in October 2000—making UMVs potentially very dangerous if used for radical activity.

Unmanned ground vehicles offer yet another terrorist attack method. The Islamic State group is said to have used remote controlled cars to deliver improvised explosive devices and more sophisticated vehicles are commercially available. Of course, even if drones aren’t used as an offensive weapon, they could still be used as an intelligence-gathering tool.

Protective Countermeasures

There are ways to protect locations and hopefully prevent drones from getting close to facilities. The Open Briefing analysts suggested the following:

  • Regulatory countermeasures, such as point-of-sale regulations, civil aviation rules, and manufacturing standards and restrictions.
  • Passive countermeasures, such as early-warning systems and signal jamming.
  • Active countermeasures, such as kinetic defenses and laser defense systems.

The report points to South Africa as an example of a country with some of the strictest rules in the world short of an outright ban on unmanned vehicles. Its regulations include a requirement for UAV operators to have a valid remote pilot license and a letter of approval from the director of the South African Civil Aviation Authority.

South African regulations do not allow drones to be flown near nuclear power plants, prisons, police stations, crime scenes, courthouses, critical national infrastructure, or strategic installations. South Africa also prohibits drones from being flown in formation or swarm, flown directly overhead or within a lateral distance of 50 meters of a person or crowd, or within 50 meters laterally of any structure or building, according to the report.

Firmware, that is, permanent software programmed into UAV’s read-only memory, can be used to create no-fly zones based on GPS coordinates. Currently, the report says there are about 350 no-fly zones worldwide, mostly around airports. A disadvantage of this type of protection, however, is that firmware could potentially be hacked by a skilled programmer, negating the benefit.

Radar and closed-circuit television surveillance can be used to monitor for UAVs with some success, but commercial systems are also available or under development—such as DroneShield, Domestic Drone Countermeasures, and Dedrone—to alert personnel to the presence of UAVs. Once a drone signal is detected, popular control frequencies can be blocked with radio frequency jammers, disrupting navigation.

The last defense barrier is to shoot the drone. It may sound like a scene out of a movie, but rockets, missiles, and bullets can be used to eliminate a potential drone-based threat. Lasers offer less chance for collateral damage, but those systems are still under development.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)