Next Homeland Security threat: cyber-physical attacks by drone strikes?

Killer drone strikes could be the next cyber-physical Homeland Security threat, reported the Brookings Institute. While cyber attacks focus on the malicious use of computer systems and networks, flying and armed "computers" in the form of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) drones constitute "a significant potential security threat."


"Drones are essentially flying - and sometimes armed - computers. The same advances in information technology that enable video-capable smartphones and wireless Internet-based movie delivery to laptop computers also make it possible to build smaller, less expensive, and more versatile drones," wrote John Villasenor. His article gave several examples like the USAF's Wasp III microdrone that weighs less than a pound, is less than a foot long, and comes with two cameras, GPS and autopilot navigation. Then there's the Nano Hummingbird, a DARPA-funded flying drone the size of a life-sized hummingbird, weighs two-thirds of an ounce, and has video-capabilities.

These drones will continue to be built smaller and to run so quietly that they will be able to hide in plain sight, so stealthy that it will be difficult to detect the launch and operation of such drones being used against the USA in U.S. airspace. In fact, it was not until a small drone crashed in El Paso before U.S. officials discovered it was spy-flying for the Mexican federal police. Although the U.S. military has about 7,000 drones in operation today, the Teal Group predicted UAV spending will total over $94 billion in the next 10 years. The Pentagon asked for about $5 billion for drones in 2012. By 2030, the Pentagon "envisions ever more stuff of science fiction: 'spy flies' equipped with sensors and microcameras to detect enemies, nuclear weapons or victims in rubble."

Love them or hate them, drones are a well-established tool in the War on Terror. In fact, terrorists have called for the assassination of some drone makers.

"Eleven of the nation's top military leaders are among 58 past and present military, corporate and civilian officials" that are on Al Qaeda's "hit list" reported Homeland Security Today. One of those targets included Lockheed Martin chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert Stevens because his company makes drones and other UAVs. During a trial in Chicago, accused terrorist David Headley said that a Pakistan-based branch of Al Qaeda had plotted to kill Stevens. You might recall the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel is a fighter-sized aircraft with a 65-foot wingspan which was nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar." It is believed to be the secret stealth drone that served as the eyes and ears that helped to kill Osama bin Laden.

The LA Times reported that the FBI warned corporate executives at AeroVironment, another military contractor that builds drones like the Nano Hummingbird, that they were among the list of people targeted for assassination by members of Al Qaeda-connected forum. The video below is a "test flight" of the tiny flapping-wing hummingbird drone.

Sooner or later, drones built for spying or for killing will fall into the wrong hands to be used against America. It is unknown how many billions of dollars it might take to mitigate the national security risks posed by killer drones, but the Brookings Institute believes the U.S. needs to come up with "the policies, systems and procedures" to address such an cyber-physical attack. An established plan will inevitability play "a vital role in minimizing the chances of a successful drone attack on American interests."

Although this is neither as small as a fruit fly nor armed to the teeth, Gizmodo's Jesus Diaz pointed out a DIY drone that could potentially fly through your window and kill you while you sleep. This quadrotor UAV was created by at the University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab and the little sucker can certainly maneuver aggressively. You can imagine how challenging it would be to defend against such small target if it were meant for a lethal attack.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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