I was marching in a pride parade when I heard a familiar buzzing over my shoulder. Turning on my heel, I came face-to-propeller blade with a drone. I watched as it swooped perilously close to the crowd and then suddenly soared straight up.
Later, I found the drone pilot and director literally plucking their DJI Ghost quadcopter out of the sky after successfully capturing tons of excellent drone footage. They’d been hired to document the event. I remember being impressed with the pilot’s expertise. I bet his shots looked amazing.
As consumer drones have grown larger and more intelligent, making piloting virtual child’s play, concerns have grown.
Few are paying attention to the drone above because in front of them stands Venezuela's recently re-elected leader, President Nicolas Maduro. At least one attendee, perhaps distracted by the drone’s loud propeller buzz, turns his head skyward, pointing his camera phone at the drone as it floats a few hundred feet above the military procession.
Then it explodes in a bright orange fireball.
Early that morning, my heart sunk as I read the words “Drone assassination attempt.” Even with two exploding drones, no one was killed in the apparent August 5th attack, and the injuries appeared to be minor. I was thankful for that, but knew we’d finally turned that corner, the one many have worried about since once expensive and complicated drone technology became a consumer plaything.
Granted, the hexacopter drones that reportedly exploded cost thousands of dollars and need trained pilots. Still, they are just one step away from sub-$1,000 quadcopters that can be piloted by anyone comfortable with apps and joystick-driven video games.
I’ve been covering drones for years. I’ve always worried about putting them in the hands of hapless consumer pilots, those who fly their drones straight into the ocean, near airports, or too close to sporting events. There are also too many daredevils who, though expert pilots, have a penchant for flying their drones close to landmarks like the Statue of Liberty just to get that one-of-a-kind drone shot (those shots are also quite popular with Hollywood, which now often uses drones in lieu of helicopters).
As consumer drones have grown larger and more intelligent, making piloting virtual child’s play, concerns have grown. Most people I speak to about drones express privacy concerns. They don’t want a a 4K-camera-equipped droned flying over their backyards. I get that and, when I do fly a drone, I steer clear of neighborhoods.
The conversations I’ve had on network news shows, though, are more pointed. Over the years, more than a few journalists have asked me about the terrorism potential of drone technology. What’s to stop someone, they’ve asked, from flying a bomb into the Statue of Liberty or some other landmark? At the time, I said most drones couldn’t handle the extra weight. Back then, piloting a drone from, say, the southern tip of Manhattan to Lady Liberty would’ve been beyond the skills of most amateur pilots (you can pre-program a flight, but that takes some skill, too). And it takes another level of expertise to attach a bomb and remote detonation technology.
Though I wasn’t lying when I said this, I avoided projecting forward into an inevitable future. A future in which drones would get smarter, piloting would get easier, and bad actors would always look for new terror delivery mechanisms.
The drone revolution won’t pause to consider the Venezuela attack.
There is much we do not know about the Venezuela attack. At least one report contradicts the idea that it was a drone explosion at all (local firemen think it was a gas explosion) and the video showing the hexacopter exploding remains unverified.
But my gut tells me it was a drone attack. I suspect it was one that didn’t go as planned. The explosions happened well above the crowd, and there were injuries, but the obvious target — the Venezuelan president — was unharmed.
Even so, most believe this will not be the last drone attack. The technology grows more accessible and popular each year.
There were at least 2.2 million drones sold worldwide in 2016. The drone market is expected to balloon to $12 billion in 2021. The vast majority of these drones will be quadcopter consumer drones sold to enthusiasts. A much smaller fraction of more powerful hex and octocopter drones will be sold commercially. Could a potential terrorists buy some of these drones? Maybe.
In the U.S. at least, all drones over roughly half a pound must be registered with the FAA. There are also numerous federal and local government rules about where you can fly drones, so much so that I now often struggle to find approved test-flight zones.
All these rules and regulations frustrate drone enthusiasts like me, but I’m also aware of how they might help protect us from a Venezuelan-style attack. It isn’t easy to surreptitiously drop a drone in from the sky if you can’t fly above 400 ft. and have to keep the drone within your line of sight.
Generally, if someone is flying a large drone overhead, as they were at my parade, they have a pilot’s license and a permit from the local authorities. I guess a terrorist could lie, though the FAA does ask for a lot of information (name, address, phone number, email, drone serial number).
I’m not naïve. People intent on doing harm via drone will do whatever they have to do to carry out their horrifying acts. Lying will be the least of it.
The drone revolution won’t pause to consider the Venezuela attack. I expect the market to grow. I expect consumer drones to get smarter, faster, and more capable of carrying bigger payloads — but it might be time for manufacturers to introduce new technology to combat misuse. Most, like DJI, build in no-fly zone awareness, but it’s not difficult to, at least temporarily, disable that technology. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.
It may only be a matter of time before the next drone terrorist attack. How will we prepare?
I guess we can start by looking up.