Obama sent the drones after a few terrorists and massacred whole families. Lasers have blinded the pilots of planes as they land. Amazon is planning to use drones to deliver parcels. In this age of DIY terror, governments are not doing enough to control potentially horrific attacks that could bring down an airliner over a city, and precipitate another misguided war like Iraq.
Between the two, lasers are probably the less dangerous terrorist weapon. They produce a powerful beam of light, which unlike a torch beam only spreads very gradually, so that at a height of 1000 metres it still covers less than the nose of an aircraft.
The effect is to light up the whole cabin and make it difficult at night for a pilot to see the instruments. In Brazil, this kind of vandalism is more common, a pilot told me that all he could do sometimes was grab a magazine to shield the crew. In the US, where penalties are tougher, the police will send up a helicopter to draw the interest of the offender and locate them, if they are still there, and heavy fines can be imposed.
A green laser aimed at the cockpit of a landing plane is most dangerous during the final moments before touchdown, when the pilots need to be able to see the runway clearly and the plane is not controlled by the automatic pilot.
But in order to threaten the safety of a plane in this way there must be a clear line of sight from a position on the ground and preferably directly ahead of the runway, something that may not be possible at most airports. And even then, there is no certainty of causing a crash.
Special coatings are being developed to apply to the windshields of planes, to filter out laser beams, while allowing visibility for safe flying. At present goggles can do this but pilots have enough to do without looking for goggles while landing their plane.
Death on wheels and honey for ISIS
In a bee colony, the drones are only there to mate with the queen. They have no sting, but they mate in mid-air, ejecting their sperm explosively and subsequently die.
Both lasers and drones have military applications, and both are the means of making the assassin invulnerable. Like other weapons, drones can be operated from a computer on another continent, and as one of these operators was quoted recently – “You don’t think any more about it than you would squashing a fly”. A click of a friendly little mouse in Nevada can vaporise a vehicle and its occupants, or bomb a wedding in Yemen.
Back in the 70’s, Peruvian Shining Path terrorists used to strap explosives to animals: donkeys, dogs, even a duck apparently, which were then sent into bars or markets and detonated remotely. This week, an article in the London Evening Standard talked about remotely controlled delivery drones being trialled in the London Borough of Greenwich which run along the pavements, dodging pedestrians with their sensors. And Amazon is well advanced with trials of aerial drones for delivering goods.
An aerial drone might weigh 20 kilos and be capable of flying to a height of several thousand feet, as pilots have testified, and there have been several incidents of air traffic being diverted from landing at airports until a rogue drone left the area.
The front turbine blades in a jet engine are incredibly strong – it is often said that a blade can support the weight of three London buses without snapping. But this is not a cause for complacency, when a woman at Hong Kong airport was recently seen throwing coins into an engine ‘for luck’, the flight was grounded while the engine was opened up and inspected.
A metal drone being sucked into an engine at high speed would almost certainly cause a fire or an explosion in the engine, even without the drone carrying explosives itself, and the sudden loss of power during landing or take-off could be enough to cause a plane flying over a city to crash with horrendous loss of life in the plane and on the ground.
Recently concerns have been raised that ISIS is planning attacks in Europe using unmanned vehicles, as they have already been doing in Syria and Iraq. But drones do not require explosives in order to cause devastating loss of life and huge propaganda victories for the terrorists. They are the ultimate extension of the trend towards DIY terrorism, using easily obtainable or home-made devices – and we are not prepared.
The lorry that was used to kill over 80 people in Nice, initiated a trend in Europe. Drones requires little skill, can be bought legally, and are being introduced as commercial delivery vehicles.
Nor do the users require the support and funding of a terrorist organization. But the possible use of drones against passenger aircraft represents a huge multiplier effect.
Whereas the size of a bomb used on the ground determines the damage it can do, a drone can bring down an airliner without any explosives at all.
In the UK, a drone is not allowed to be flown above 400 ft., must always be in sight of its controller, and stay away from congested areas. But there are no effective means of controlling those who don’t comply: in other words, legally, we rely on people being sensible and nice to each other. The owner of the drone which flew across the runway at Heathrow in 2014 has never been identified. Similarly, obligatory registration of owners is unlikely to be effective, if for no other reason than that there are already so many unregistered drones in circulation.
What can be done? What could happen?
Technically there is geo-fencing, a software solution which prevents a drone from being flown into aircraft flight paths, except that it is not mandatory for manufacturers to fit, and sooner or later, a terrorist programmer will not be deterred from finding a way to disable the software.
To get an informed opinion I contacted aviation expert Philip Butterworth-Hayes.
He said that in order to be effective, geo-fencing has to be mandatory for manufacturers, and must be implemented in such a way that the software requires weekly updates or the drone will cease to fly.
He draws an important distinction between the control of drones and air-traffic control. While the latter can work as a top-down system, there are far too many non-commercial drone operators to make this possible. Instead manufacturers must get together and institute a system.
And the system, he emphasized, must be fully automated to deal with the large number of privately-owned drones.
It should include the means to electronically interfere with and bring down drones that enter aircraft flight paths, using radio pulse generators or even armed drones. These effective countermeasures already exist, he told me, and are rapidly entering the market as we see here. In fact, they are in use to protect G7 meetings.
There is intelligence that jihadis are advocating drones, and production lines for gliders carrying explosives to bring down planes, so it seems that once again we are waiting for a catastrophe to happen before action is taken. 9/11 led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq, so we have to fear the geo-political consequences of an attack of this magnitude, given the kind of politicians who control the world’s biggest militaries, and their greedy desires to control oil and gas-producing countries.