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Drones: Do they pose a threat to national security?

Are flying devices a genuine threat to national security? Colin Bull from SQS looks into the issue for CBR.

By Ellie Burns

It wasn’t that long ago when drones were something seen only in the latest sci-fi film or war-based computer game. Few would have predicted that today, some of the biggest organsiations in the world – including Amazon, BT and Shell – are looking to use drones to aid business.

Yet, now consumers can expect faster deliveries to their doorstep than ever before, following Amazon’s announcement to be the first public company to authorise trials of autonomous flying drones in the UK. An ingenious idea that will see parcels delivered around the world faster than you can make your lunch and is likely to transform the way we shop. But, is the innovation also a new exploitable technology with the ability to raise national security threat levels like never before?


Danger to commercial airspace

Teal Group, an aerospace and defence consulting company, predicts global spending on the production of drones for both military and commercial use could reach $93 billion (£70 billion) in the next ten years. Furthermore, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUSVI) recently reported drones will create hundreds of thousands of jobs and bring over $82 billion (£61 billion) in revenue for the US economy in the same period. Drones are already being used in television production, as thermal imaging cameras for law enforcement to catch suspects and by utility firms to check for leaks. The introduction of drones for delivery services will mean drones are becoming more readily accepted and used.

Despite the clear benefits, drones must be embraced and feared in equal measure. Where they might look fairly innocent, what you find after a more detailed analysis is terrifying. As the versatility in configuration means they could be adapted to positively suit almost any industry and requirement, on the flip side, falling in the wrong hands, versatility could also have a negative impact.


A lack of regulation

Drones are capable of delivering incendiary devices, grenades, and perhaps even worse, into uncontrolled airspace in the same way that unmanned aerial vehicles have in the past. There are currently no regulations in place to stop someone flying one of these drones into a busy city or airspace.

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So, are drones the greatest global security threat of the future? Some may argue the advantages of drones outweigh the negatives. However, in my view, a number of steps need to be taken regardless to protect against hostile drones before a real life disaster occurs. Even military drones have a ‘Human in the Loop’, autonomous drones don’t. The government must implement strict and overarching regulations to help control drone use, especially autonomous drones that are guided by software and GPS location alone. This would include the standardisation of radio frequencies on which drones can operate, making it easier for security teams to intercept entering unchartered airspace. Automated drones should also have regulated flight plans, so enforcement agencies know the owner of the drone, what it’s carrying and its mission, at any given time.


Preventing hackers

Putting in place stringent security measures is vital. As with any connected technology, drones are at risk of being hacked by cybercriminals, meaning software programming needs to be considered more seriously in the development phase. Quality assurance specialists can help to plug any potential loopholes vulnerable to unscrupulous hackers, limiting security and privacy risks from the outset. Although this may not completely remove all threats, it will significantly enhance the chances of drones being managed safely and for the purpose they were designed.

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There is no quick fix to the drone dilemma we are facing. Drones still have the potential to revolutionise business across a range of sectors, including energy, logistics, transport, photography and even agriculture, but they question still needs to be asked: Does this outweigh the national security argument?

Drones will play a part of our future: in fact the UK Government has already stated it wants to create an environment where drones can be operated safely by 2020. Yet, without stringent regulations in place, it is vital drone manufacturers are implementing quality assurance throughout the development process. If this isn’t strictly embedded from the very beginning of production, drones could become a target for hackers and what we once seen as a marvel of innovative technologies, could quickly become a tool for malicious attacks.

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