CNN: Attack by drones with explosives raises alarm

CNN video: Attack by drones with explosives raises alarm.

The video misleads. Crucially, at 2:05, James Carafano states, “All these things are radio controlled.”

Cheap commercial drones are programmed by the factory to listen for the signal of a controller. But anybody who can hack firmware can take that feature out.

Expensive U.S. military drones, which are not intended for kamikaze use, have behaviors that enhance the chance of safe recovery if the controlling signal is lost. They cannot be fooled by false instructions, because the control stream is encrypted.  (Some readers may recall adversary eavesdropping in Afghanistan. That was of the video stream, from the drone camera to base, for which encryption was neglected. The enemy could see, but  could not control.)

The drones used in the attacks on Russian bases had advanced control circuitry that relied on two radios:

  • GPS, which is a form of one-way radio, where the receiver tells the drone autopilot where it is. You have it, you use it, you know what it is.
  • Link to a human controller, who can override the autopilot, operating paddles to move the control surfaces and throttle of the drone. The link is not encrypted, so if it is active, it can be hijacked by ECM ( jamming, electronic countermeasures.)

Subject to clarification, that the Russians  were able to crash some of the drones electronically suggests that both GPS and the controller link were active.

Drones were used by ISIS in defense of Mosul. Those drones did not have GPS. They were guided visually by ISIS controllers a few hundred yards away. They were brought down by U.S. countermeasures,  by jamming or inserting false commands into the human control link.

But there is, and always will be a form of navigation/control that cannot be jammed:  dead reckoning. The crudest approximation always works to some degree. Ancient mariners used it when they could not see the sky. You use it yourself  when the light goes out. So let’s pretend we’re a drone. This is what we do when the two radios, GPS and control link, go bonkers:

If we were moving towards our destination with such-and-such a heading and speed, keep moving the same heading and speed, and by your watch, you’ll know when you’re over it. Then dive.

I have no interest in offering refinements to the above.

Reports indicate that the drones used in the Russia attack did not have the smarts to deal with tampering of the radio signals. Lack of sophistication has been the hallmark of ISIS, because individuals who self-select terror are not the brightest specimens of humanity. But neither is it particularly hard to do.

So our desire for a rigorously proactive defense is thwarted. The current drones can be misdirected by GPS jamming, or caused to crash by tampering with the control signal. With help from a rogue state, this may not always be so.

One bright spot: Of all the possible targets of a directed-energy weapon, lightweight drones are the softest. The low energy required to deform or ignite  plastic or wood makes a man-portable laser feasible.


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