The assassination attempt on the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, in which allegedly two off-the-shelf commercial drones were used, has pushed the debate about the fast-growing industry and expansion of commercial drone flights while providing security measures against the misuse of the unmanned aerial devices to the foreground. Last weekend’s attack is believed to be the first of its kind targetting a head of state and maybe a sign of things to come. It has led to growing concerns among industry experts and government officials as they have yet to find an effective way to counter the threat of low-cost weaponized drones.

Fast-growing drone industry and public safety

Even though the assassination attempt from last Saturday is not the first time that off-the-shelf drones have been used in an attack – just take a look at these examples in Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq – it is believed to be the first instance of a drone attack on a head of state. The Venezuelan president Maduro escaped unharmed, but seven soldiers reportedly were injured. The attack has put the spotlight back on the fast-growing drone industry as well as the question of how to best protect people from hostile drones.

Many corporations are getting ready to start and expand their commercial drone operations in the U.S. as part of the UAS Integration Program that was introduced by President Trump last year. Furthermore, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), forecasts that the number of commercial drones in the US is expected to increase four-fold over the next five years, from 110,000 currently. Law enforcement agencies, however, have been very concerned about the fast expansion of these commercial drone operations.

In an article in the WSJ [paywall] Brendan Schulman, DJI’s vice president of policy and legal affairs has said that the attack in Venezuela was a clear warning for the drone industry on the need for safety measures. Mr. Schulman said he did not “think it will impede the progress of commercial drones,” but that stressed that “it should enhance the speed” and “highlight the importance of implementing remote identification solutions,” to provide law enforcement agencies with effective tools to track and identify drones in the air as well as their pilots on the ground. Initially proposed rules for remote drone identification were expected to be presented later this year but according to FAA officials, they have been delayed until the spring of 2019.

On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted in reaction to the attack that:

“The danger from weaponized drones is real. It is time for Congress to give (DHS) the authority to counter this rapidly evolving threat.”

To counter the potential threat of drones to public safety, the Trump administration has been asking to expand the authorities for law enforcement officials to shoot down or otherwise disable drones. Other measures that were recently taken include, making new airspace around military installations, nuclear facilities and federal buildings off-limits for drone-flying. At the same time, companies like DJI have used geo-fencing to prevent their aircraft from flying in sensitive areas.

A related article from The Atlantic put it more bluntly and said that the “apparent assassination attempt in Venezuela shows how [drone] technology is moving faster than governments can counter it.” Vance Serchuk, the executive director of the KKR Global Institute, the geopolitical-strategy arm of the investment firm KKR seemed to agree with this statement as he said that: “Modern air defenses are built against planes and cruise missiles. A quadcopter is small, low, and slow. We don’t have a good architecture for defeating this on the battlefield.” Jaz Banga, the CEO and co-founder of Airspace Systems, a firm that develops countermeasures for hostile drones, added to this by saying that: “there’s really no comprehensive protection right now across the U.S.,” and he added that in his work he often hears people saying about drone attacks that they are surprised:

“I’m surprised it hasn’t happened in the U.S. yet.”

What do you think about rogue and hostile drones? Is the U.S. well enough prepared to counter them or do you share the concerns expressed in this article? Let us know in the comments below.

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