Last winter an FBI hostage rescue team had set up an elevated observation post to monitor an unfolding situation in a large U.S. city. Right after they had set up they heard the sound of small aerial vehicles flying around them. Joe Mazel, head of agency’s operational technology law unit told attendees of the AUVSI Xponential conference that the small drones made a series of high-speed low pass at the agents in the observation post to flush them.” The criminal gang was successful in their attempt and Mazel continues to say that “We were then blind. Without the situational awareness, “it definitely presented some challenges.”

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Criminals are turning to drones as well

During one of the AUVSI’s sessions on Wednesday, Mazel declined to provide more information about the incident, saying that it remains “law-enforcement sensitive”. He added that the suspects had brought the drones to the area in anticipation of the FBI’s arrival.

Not only did the gang use the drones to disrupt the operation, they also used the unmanned aerial vehicles to have an eye in the sky, observing the FBI’s every movement. The video feed from the drone was live-streamed to Youtube so that other gang members could see what the FBI was up to.

Mazel said: “They had people fly their own drones up and put the footage to YouTube so that the guys who had cellular access could go to the YouTube site and pull down the video.”

He also added that counter surveillance is the fastest growing manner in which organized criminals are using drones. They even go as far as to monitor police departments with drones to see who might be cooperating with them.

Criminals have clearly discovered drones and are using them in a variety of ways. They use them to prepare house break-ins, observe larger targets, look for security gaps and to determine the patterns of security guards.

According to Defense One, the associate chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Andrew Scharnweber explained how organized criminals were using drones to monitor Border Patrol officers to exploit gaps in their coverage. Scharnweber said:

“In the Border Patrol, we have struggled with scouts, human scouts that come across the border. They’re stationed on various mountaintops near the border and they would scout … to spot law enforcement and radio down to their counterparts to go around us. That activity has effectively been replaced by drones.”

He added that cartels are moving small packages with high-value drugs across the border with little risk of being caught.

Other government officials that were part of the panel said that the current situation will get worse before it gets better as there is no easy technological solution. Most of the drone jamming solutions that the U.S. militairy has deployed in the Middle East may proof less effective in the more densily populated urban areas in the U.S.

The most recent version of the FAA reauthorization bill has two amemdments that may proof useful in the battle against criminal drone use. According to the FAA’s deputy associate administrator  in the office of security and hazardous materials safety, one amendment would make it illigal to weopinize consumer drones. The second one, which could be more offective, would require drones that can fly beyond line-of-sight to require broadcast a remote ID that would allow law enforcement officials to track down the drone operator.

Stubblefield continued to say that “Remote identification is a huge piece” in order to reduce crime related to unmanned aerial vehicles. She added that:

“Both from a safety perspective… enabling both air traffic control and other UAS (unmanned areal systems) to know where another is and enabling beyond line-of-sight operations. It also has an extensive security benefit to it, which is to enable threat discrimination. Remote ID connected to registration would allow you to have information about each UAS, who owns it, operates it, and thus have some idea what its intent is.”

However even if these amendments pass as part of the new bill, it will still take some time to take effect, meaning that for now criminal gangs will likely continue to use drones to their advantage.

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