On Saturday, as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gave a speech in Caracas before a large military assemblage, drones carrying explosives approached, officials there said, detonating near the stage. While Maduro was unharmed, Venezuelan information minister Jorge Rodriguez said that the attack injured seven soldiers. It's a method of assault that only a few years ago felt unthinkable, but has quickly become inevitable.
Details remain scarce about the exact nature of the attack, which Rodriguez characterized as an “assassination attempt,” including what type of drones were used and the nature of the explosives involved. In a televised address to his country, Maduro appeared to attribute the strike to far-right factions in Venezuela and Colombia. “They have tried to kill me today,” Maduro said.
As the hours passed, some reports disputed the drone attack narrative. The Associated Press reported that three unnamed firefighters say it was actually an apartment gas tank explosion. A military expert quoted in The Washington Post posited that the government lost control of its own drone, and had to take it down. But local witnesses later confirmed seeing a drone explode.1
'It's clear that increasingly capable and hard-to-stop drones will become a key instrument of revolutionaries going forward.'
Todd Humphreys, UT-Austin
Not long after the attack, Venezuelan authorities arrested six suspects, according to interior minister Nestor Reverol. Reverol also provided more details about the incident, alleging that the suspects used two DJI M600 drones, each loaded down with 1 kilogram of C-4 explosive, capable of creating a blast radius of 50 meters. The DJI M600 is generally considered a professional-grade drone, primarily for filmmakers and photographers, but has a strong build, and can handle a relatively heavy payload.
"It's clear that increasingly capable and hard-to-stop drones will become a key instrument of revolutionaries going forward," says Todd Humphreys, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched security issues around unmanned aerial vehicles. "The technical challenge of defending a head of state in a public venue against a small drone carrying explosives is much greater than that of building one." 2
While shocking, the drone attack at least has ample precedent. ISIS has consistently used quadcopters to drop grenades, dive-bomb targets, and more for years. And a 2016 report by the nonprofit group Open Briefing laid out the possibility of targeted drone strikes not unlike Saturday’s chaos. That concern has now manifested—and current defenses aren’t strong enough to keep it from happening again.
“The barriers to entry have been lowered so much that literally anyone with enough money to afford a drone and the technical competence of a 12-year-old can pull off an attempt like this,” says Colin Clarke, international security policy analyst at the RAND corporation.
US defense officials concur. In joint testimony delivered to Congress on June 6, Department of Homeland Security undersecretary for intelligence and analysis David Glawe and DHS deputy general counsel Hayley Chang sounded a similar alarm. “This is a very serious, looming threat that we are currently unprepared to confront,” the two wrote. “Today we are unable to effectively counter malicious use of drones.”
That malicious use goes well beyond explosives; it includes drug smuggling, criminal surveillance, malware injection, and more. Limits are defined less by technology than by one’s imagination.
Options for defense, meanwhile, remain slim. Chang and Glawe blame the current regulatory environment for that lack of preparedness. They’ve asked for broader authority to track, and if necessary disable, any unmanned aircraft that gets too close to sensitive facilities, and to do so without prior consent, something proposed in the bipartisan Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018, introduced in May.
'I don't think the defensive and regulatory environment is nearly mature enough to prevent this kind of attack in the US.'
Colin Clarke, RAND Corporation
Blaming red tape might somewhat oversimplify the situation, though. In truth, most good drone defenses come with drawbacks and caveats. You can switch on a super-powered radio-frequency jammer, but risk disrupting mobile communications. You can shoot a drone down, but risk collateral damage. You can force geofencing on manufacturers, creating certain no-fly zones—popular drone maker DJI already does this—but a savvy attacker can disable those protections with relative ease. Dutch police have tested training eagles to hunt down bad drones, but the impracticalities of that approach add up astonishingly fast.
In short, there are no good answers. “I don't think the defensive and regulatory environment is nearly mature enough to prevent this kind of attack in the US,” says Clarke.
And even if you did give DHS carte blanche to take drones out of the sky, you run into legitimate civil liberties issues. “While the potential security threat posed by drones is real and the need to protect certain facilities is legitimate, strong checks and balances to protect property, privacy, and First Amendment rights are vital,” wrote Faiz Shakir and Neema Singh Guliani of the American Civil Liberties Union in response to the Preventing Emerging Threats Act. After all, the ACLU argues, the government might decide to shoot down a drone that's, say, broadcasting news that it doesn't like under the guise of national security. “The bill amounts to an enormous unchecked grant of authority to the government to forcefully remove drones from the sky in nebulous security circumstances.”
If the situation seems grim, there’s at least something like a silver lining. While drone attacks draw plenty of attention, they’re also relatively ineffective, especially for carrying out any sort of large-scale attack. The odds that a drone attack will injure you personally remain very small.
A small-scale, highly targeted, extremely disruptive attack, though? While unsuccessful, the alleged events in Venezuela Saturday showed that those may now be on the table. And there’s very little any country can do to prevent it.
“The threat presented by these devices is not hypothetical or in the future,” wrote Chang and Glawe. “It is here and now.”
1 UPDATE 8/5/2018 8:30AM EDT: This story has been updated to reflect that some dispute the Venezuelan government's version of Saturday's attack.2 UPDATE 8/5/2018 7:00PM EDT: Updated to include further information from the Venezuelan interior minister and professor Todd Humphreys.
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