The U.S. has been using a drone missile campaign to fight terrorists. Now, ISIS has turned the tables and scored success by using booby-trapped drones as its own weapons.
The terror group's ability to innovate and use small aircraft for nefarious purposes underscores how the off-the-shelf drone technology could supply extremists with a potent platform on our own soil to deliver explosives.
Moreover, there is evidence that international terrorists have looked at other ways to weaponize drones and "have been attracted to the high-lethality potential associated with the use of chemical and biological weapons," according to a report released Thursday by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point
"We have to be poised and ready on the U.S. side to innovate whenever a new threat appears, and this is definitely a new threat," said Andrew Hunter, director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a defense think tank.
Islamic State has increasingly been using drones for surveillance and for attempted attacks on the battlefield, particularly against Iraqi forces, according to experts. Earlier this month, a small drone killed two Kurdish soldiers fighting the terror group when an explosive-laden craft unexpectedly detonated after being downed.
"It's an ongoing game of cat and mouse between the offense and defense like you see in a lot of military areas," said Hunter. "People have seen this coming. It's sort of a natural extension of the whole IED [or improvised explosive device] threat."
In July, the U.S. Army issued a new handbook to raise troop awareness of the threat of multiple swarming drones.
"They can be preprogrammed or remotely piloted as an expendable asset at relatively low cost," it stated. "The swarm itself can be used to disrupt our own reconnaissance efforts or overwhelm an entry control point."
The military is taking the threat seriously and expects the use of hostile drones to continue.
"Coalition forces understand that ISIL is a determined, adaptive and unscrupulous adversary," said a Department of Defense spokesman in a statement. "There is a wide array of technology angles we are looking into — from blocking the electromagnetic spectrum and disrupting control of the device, to physically capturing or disabling the device."
Additionally, the DoD spokesman said they are taking "appropriate precautions to protect Coalition forces and our partners on the ground from the full spectrum of threats in the operating environment so that they can carry out their mission of training, advising and assisting indigenous forces in Iraq and Syria as they work to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat."
Closer to home, the threat of a domestic terrorist using an inexpensive hobby drone in an urban area remains real. It's not just for the use of deadly payloads but the Combating Terrorism Center report also discusses how drones could be used "as a diversionary device to channel a crowd to another location where attackers could be lying in wait."
"The Department of Homeland Security has ongoing research and development efforts focused on the detection, tracking and interdiction of small Unmanned Aerial Systems," Patrick Carrick, the director of the federal government's Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency within the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement.
Experts suggest that the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) pose a nuisance threat, too. Rogue drones have been detected around stadiums, nuclear plants, prisons and even interfered with fire emergencies. There also have been drone intrusions in sensitive government locations in the nation's capital, including on the White House lawn.
We have ways to deal with the UAV threat, and major U.S. defense companies already known for big-ticket defense systems are active participants in selling the newest anti-drone technology.
"There is a need to roll things out here in the U.S. while we're also protecting our soldiers internationally," said Doug Booth, Lockheed Martin's director of business development for cyber and electronic warfare.
Lockheed Martin has two anti-drone systems. One, a Star Wars-like laser weapon technology has not been field tested yet. Another is what's known as Icarus, a non-kinetic system that has been fielded and designed to detect, recognize and intercept drones.
According to Booth, Lockheed has "a classified customer" for the Icarus system and has conducted several other field exercises for additional customers who are "getting ready to obtain the system."
Meanwhile, Boeing shot down its first UAV during a 2007 test aboard a combat vehicle. The company has since made its new drone-killing technology — known as Compact Laser Weapons System — more portable and has demonstrated how it can track and disable UAVs.
"We've tried to reduce the size, weight and the footprint of these laser weapons to try to get them down into a size that is more applicable to a modern battlefield," said Rich Choppa, Boeing's director of global sales and marketing for strategic missiles and defense systems.
In April, Boeing mounted the anti-drone device on a Stryker armored vehicle made by General Dynamics and shot down over 20 UAVs. Choppa said the test included other targets, and pointed out that it was done at the request of the U.S. Army.
"We're on the cusp of the first purchase by the military of these types of systems," said Choppa. "I believe we'll see them on the battlefield."
Elsewhere, Raytheon demonstrated a laser weapon system in 2010 that destroyed four drones; it has shown missiles can do the job, too. In addition, there's a Phalanx rapid-fire weapon system capable of countering UAVs. The defense contractor declined comment for this story.
There also are several international companies at the forefront of new anti-drone tech. SkyWall, from U.K.-based OpenWorks Engineering, uses a shoulder-mounted weapon that fires a projectile with a net to capture drones. Then there's a "kamikaze" solution known as the Hero-30 from UVision, an Israeli company that uses a suicide drone to find UAV targets and rams into them.
Yet another anti-drone system is the Battelle DroneDefender, which uses a radio-jamming "rifle" that severs the link between the drone and controller.
DroneDefender could be useful to local and state public safety agencies but the defense contractor said current U.S. law makes electronic jamming illegal to those groups, and only certain federal departments can purchase or use the system.
"We have a lot of interest from others, but currently we're not allowed to sell to those folks," said Dan Stamm, one of the inventors of the DroneDefender and manager of counter UAS programs for Battelle. About 100 of the jammer units have been sold to the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, according to the Ohio-based contractor.
A newcomer in the anti-drone market is SkySafe, which is developing its own disruptive technology for taking down drones. In April, the startup raised $3 million in funding from an investor group led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. SkySafe's website says the California-based company is currently seeking testing partners.