As the popularity of small commercially-available drones has rapidly increased in recent years, so too have fears of law enforcement officials that the camera-equipped unmanned vehicles would be used for nefarious purposes by the criminal element.
According to Defense One, those fears are already being realized in some areas here in America and around the globe, and the problem will likely get worse before authorities can get a handle on it.
That revelation came from an FBI official and others during a discussion with attendees at the 2018 Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International XPonential Conference in Denver, Colorado, this week.
Joe Mazel, head of the FBI’s operational technology law unit, shared an incident that occurred during the winter at an undisclosed location in which a criminal gang utilized a swarm of small drones to discover, expose, flush out and shut down an FBI hostage rescue team that had set up surveillance in an elevated position to keep an eye on a developing situation.
Mazel explained that shortly after the team had set up in place they were buzzed by multiple drones that made numerous “high-speed low passes at the agents in the observation post to flush them,” an action that caused the surveillance team to lose their situational awareness and compromised the mission.
“We were then blind,” Mazel said of the swarm attack. “It definitely presented some challenges.”
Because of the sensitivity of the matter Mazel was unable to get too specific in the details of the incident, but he did reveal that the gang had anticipated the arrival of the FBI team and were already in place with their drones. Aside from buzzing the FBI agents to disrupt their plans, they also used the drone’s cameras to conduct their own counter-surveillance by running the video feeds on YouTube.
“They had people fly their own drones up and put the footage to YouTube so that the guys who had cellular access could go to the YouTube site and pull down the video,” Mazel said.
He also revealed that some criminal gangs were using drones to conduct counter-surveillance on police stations to identify informants and witnesses, as well as to keep tabs on the comings and goings of officers. Other groups have used drones to scout for home invasion crimes or monitor security at larger facilities and identify gaps and weaknesses to exploit.
There was even a case in Australia where a smuggling gang used drones to ensure that no port workers got close to their illicit hidden cargo, and would call in a false alarm bomb threat or fire to make workers scatter if anybody got too close to the shipping containers that contained their contraband.
The Associate Chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Andrew Scharnweber, explained to conference attendees how criminal cartels were using drones at the border to surveil Border Patrol agents and find the gaps in their coverage of the border so smugglers and traffickers could exploit them.
“In the Border Patrol, we have struggled with scouts, human scouts that come across the border. They’re stationed on various mountaintops near the border and they would scout … to spot law enforcement and radio down to their counterparts to go around us. That activity has effectively been replaced by drones,” said Scharnweber, who added that drones were even used in some cases to transport small amounts of high-value narcotics across the border with “little or no fear of arrest.”
The Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and other terrorist outfits have been using consumer drones for the past few years to monitor the movement of military units and drop small bombs, but that tactic was countered by the use of drone-jamming technologies. That tactic won’t work in an American city though, as the jamming could also interfere with cell phone signals and other aircraft.
It is noteworthy that an upcoming re-authorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration in Congress contains two amendments that could potentially deal with the growing problem. The first would be a prohibition on the “weaponization” of commercial drones. The other proposed amendment would require drones operating beyond an operator’s line-of-sight to broadcast an identifying signal that authorities could pick up on and track.
However, we all know how criminals feel about and obey laws that curtail their illegal activities. They don’t like them, and they don’t obey them.
Hopefully federal authorities and law enforcement officials will figure out how to deal with the criminal use of small consumer drones that doesn’t infringe upon the lawful use of those same kinds of drones by law-abiding people. Otherwise, the problem will only continue to grow and it’s only a matter of time before some individual or group weaponizes a swarm of drones and an unfortunate mass casualty event takes place.
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