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The UAE Drone Attack is a Grim Reminder for Better Regulation of Drones



The drone technology has ushered in an era of revolution, not only in military sector but in other sectors as well. Unmanned aerial vehicles have found employment in agriculture sector for purpose of spraying hazardous chemical fertilizers which might cause several skin diseases if sprayed with bare hands. Drones are used for the purpose of crop assessment and India has recently employed drones for measuring agricultural lands and digitizing the land records. Drones are also used for delivering critical pharma ingredients and have recently been used to deliver Covid-19 vaccines in remote and inaccessible areas. Other potential uses of the technology include surveillance of mines before mining for any potentially-hazardous gases.

But this drone technology is not a win-win technology and comes with its own security concerns. On January 17, 2022, two Indian and one Pakistani national were killed in a drone attack at a fuel storage facility which was claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. In retaliation, the Saudi-led coalition targeted Houthi strongholds in the capital city of Sana’a through air raids. However, this is not the sole incident where a non-state actor has resorted to drone technology for carrying out successful attacks. In June 2021, Pakistan-sponsored terrorists detonated drone-carried IED at an Indian Air force base. Drones have also been used by ISIS to target bases of coalition forces.

The dynamic drone technology has become a growing concern for law-enforcement agencies all over the world. The main objective of drone technology, also known as the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was to benefit commercial, humanitarian, civilian and peaceful military activities. However, these have become a new tool of mass destruction with little to no collateral damage to the perpetrator. The recent attacks highlighted above are a glaring example of the destructive potential of this critical and emerging technology.

What are the challenges from drone technology?

I want to make it very clear in the first place that the threat lies not from this technology itself but rather who uses this technology. Hence, the foremost challenge comes from the potential misuse by the rogue elements as mentioned above. Non-State actors, terrorist organisations can use drone technology to carry out simultaneous attacks. Moreover, evidence suggests that drones intended for commercial purpose can be modified for non-commercial purposes. Hence, it is quite difficult to identify the type of technology; the kind of drone which can be employed to launch attacks.

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Another significant concern for the law-enforcement agencies is that low-flying drones escape air defence systems. The use of these small drones in the night time can prove more deadly. The small and insignificant size of these drones grants them weak radar, thermal and aural signatures. These nano-drones are not very expensive and are readily-available in the market. Hence, the cost-benefit analysis provides desirable results.

Another concern regarding the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles technology is that this technology is a rapidly-evolving technology which requires a constant monitoring of the modifications introduced in the technology. Over the past few years, drones have become central to the functions of various businesses and governmental organizations and have managed to pierce through areas where certain industries were either stagnant or lagging behind. This requires both the national as well as the global security apparatus to be on toes to counter this evolving technology.

Another problematic aspect of drones is that the technology supports both intra-and-inter country drones. In other words, the attack can be perpetrated from a place within a country as well as from a place across the border. A recent example of cross-border drone attack is of course the recent attack by the Houthis on the UAE oil storage facility highlighted above. The worrying trend in this regard is that most of the time, the victim country does not have enough insight over what is being planned or evolved across the border. Probably, that was the reason why both the UAE as well as Indian authorities failed to thwart the respective attacks in their territories.

Present defences available against Drone attack-

Present counter-drone technology can be bifurcated in kinetic and non-kinetic defences. Kinetic systems are countermeasures designed to impact a drone in-flight to disable/damage it. Kinetic defences involve the use of an external element to thwart the attack. It can be done through spraying bullets on the UAV, destroying it through laser or high-powered electro-magnetic waves, using a small-range ballistic missile, collision with another drone, etc.

However, Kinetic counter-measures come with their own limitations. For a kinetic defence to be successful, a number of factors need to be ensured. The foremost among these factors is the ability to track drones as soon as possible. Without tracking of drone in time, it would not be possible to coordinate the defence in time. Moreover, the weapons used to bring down drone are generally short-range weapons which are effective only up to a small distance, say 100 feet. Any skilled-drone operator can easily defy these weapons maintaining good flight planning and situational awareness in monitoring the drone’s flight path.

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Another set of counter-drone technology consists of non-kinetic defences. It includes using jammers to disrupt communication between the drone and the drone operator, disrupting the GPS signal, etc. Basically, these measures do not require the security forces to conduct any combat operations. However, much needs to be done in the realm of counter-drone technology because of the nature of the rapidly-evolving drone technology.

What needs to be done?

I have already highlighted the potential of this drone technology to transform various sectors and the fact that it is not the technology but the user of this technology who might pose a threat. Hence, the foremost thing to be kept in mind is to prevent drones from falling into wrong hands. This can be done through placing stringent registration requirements on the part of operators. Issuing a Unique Identification Number for each drone can be helpful in this regard. Further, certification of every drone by the competent aviation authority must be made compulsory.

Low-cost drones have the potential for more mischief. These drones weigh as less as 250 grams. Hence, there is a greater need to regulate these type of drones. Official supervision requirements can be placed for manufacturing of drones beyond a certain size. Moreover, a greater emphasis should be there on encouraging self-discipline within the drone industry in order to prevent the drones from falling into wrong hands.

With respect to counter-drone technology, the need is to respond swiftly and remain one-step ahead while working on counter-technology. Development of an all-encompassing air-defence system must be prioritised in order to track and bring down any drone irrespective of size. More funds are required to be poured in for research and development purposes in this regard. The focus should be on autonomous hard-kill counter-technology.

Via MD

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