China’s Lost Drones are Infiltrating America

Drones are a very popular “new toy” for many in the United States. They are used by both hobbyists as well as professionals across a myriad of industries to accomplish many tasks from aerial and building photography to pipeline inspections, facilities surveillance and security.

They are already being weaponized and have been used by terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq since 2016. It was documented back in 2016 that 32 different types of drones manufactured in six different countries were being used on Middle East battlefields.

Today, that number is growing and the battlefields are not limited to the Middle East. Why? Ease of re-purposing these products and weaponizing them is becoming a force multiplier for small forces and terrorist groups around the world in asymmetrical warfare. Although the drones are not sold in the Middle East, they are being sold to various factions that sell to that region, as well as others, through third parties.

The recent August 2018 attack in Venezuela where there was an attempt on the life of President Maduro, shows the increased use of drones as a new weapon to take down political rivals. Attacks on individuals are on the rise. Drones are an affordable weapon and ones that is not easily defeated.

Can a civilian drone be used as a weapon?

When it comes to Americans using their drones for aerial cameras or other hobbies, one out-of-ten “get lost” on their initial flight.

So if we have 500,000 drones that have been sold in the United States, ten percent of them (50,000) could already be employed this way and all the owners think they just simply “lost them into the wind” and cannot find them. Could they have been intercepted? A scary thought.

The actual “lost drone” numbers are more staggering than that.

In a Fortune article back in January 2017, FAA Chief Administrator, Michael Huerta, said that the FAA projects that nearly 7 million drones may be sold in the United States by 2020, or “about two-and-a-half times the population of the state of Nevada.” Take ten percent of that projected 7,000,000 and you have a very formidable amount of “flying reconnaissance vehicles” (700,000). Their original owners have written them off as “lost,” but what if they are not?

Recruiting the secret army of drones

By far, the largest Chinese supplier of civilian drones is DJI (Dà-Jiāng Innovations) which owns 85% of the global civilian drone market. DJI is a Chinese technology company with its headquarters in Shenzhen, Guangdong. It manufactures good, quality unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. DJI drones are great for aerial photography and videography. DJI also builds flight controllers, gimbals, camera stabilizers, and other key drone components.

Coincidentally back in May of 2017, DJI put out a warning to all of its customers: “Failure to register with DJI means the drone will have a height limit of 98 feet (30 meters), a radius of 164 feet (50 meters), and the live video feed will be disabled. This new step, to take effect at the end of next week, ensures you will use the correct set of geospatial information and flight functions for your aircraft, as determined by your geographical location and user profile. The change applies internationally.”

The Chinese government has access to DJI (which they do and they even help fund it and its R&D). There is a risk that the Chinese government could take over all DJI drones in one country and do a “super sweep” of surveillance using the cameras and information-gathering capabilities on each drone. In effect, they would have a remote army of data-gathering drones at their command.

There is already a precedent set that DJI must hand over information to the Chinese government when they request it.

In a New York Times article, they discuss the interest that the Chinese government has on collecting information and controlling encryption on the drone products. They are also concerned about American information gathering and probably want the same type of capability as a countermeasure. In a later New York Times article, the author puts forth the idea that critical information could be flowing from the United States to China.

DJI advertises its drones as a fun recreational activity.

If the drones are here already, it is like thousands of mechanical refugees flying around (in flocks or swarms) who now have full reporting capabilities back to local servers and then to China.

Sounds too farfetched like a Tom Clancy novel? It is not beyond the scope and limitations of the technology.

In reviewing the notice on September 1, 2017, there was another “upgrade or lose all flying capabilities” warning from DJI.

You had to download the firmware or your drone would be rendered useless. This is a great way to insure whatever “spy software” is necessary to turn the drone into a “foreign agent” is innocently installed on the civilian drone without any thought of installing something “extra.”

Suspicious software? No, it’s just a software “upgrade” from the factory.

The stipulation by DJI is that you must get the download or your drone will be grounded. It could be an innocuous way to infect many processors on drones with a “spy” virus. On many of the low-end drones, they can be powered up by plugging into the USB port of your computer. Once you plug it in, what do you know what is really going on? The drone could also be downloading something from its last “critical” download received from DJI onto your computer and install some malware.

Sound too farfetched? Again: It is not beyond the scope and limits of the technology.

What in the U.S. is here to stop them?

Does the U.S. have a universal “shut-off” switch for all civilian drones in the country? No.

Without registration, the FAA would have no idea of where all the civilian drones are, let alone know who owns them especially ones that were “lost,” and how to ground them.

The last time the U.S. had to literally “clear the skies” was on September 11, 2001. All air traffic controllers sent a message for planes to approach the nearest airport and land. There is no mechanism like that in place to ground all drones. How do you even get in contact with all the drone owners for any disaster or grounding event?

So how would you stop a “super sweep” of surveillance of all critical U.S. installations and infrastructure that include imaging of the target as well as easy GPS positioning tying the exact location to the picture? How would you know it was even happening?

There are relatively new pieces of electronic infrastructure you should become familiar with. Some of these new pieces are called geofencing and beacons.

How can you ground all civilian drones for some event in a region? Where is the virtual “master switch” to shut everything down in a region or nationally?

Never thought about it? You aren’t alone. What else have you failed to think about when it comes to creatively weaponizing common, but sophisticated consumer products?

This concept is being reviewed by companies including Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon. They see the threat posed by large swarms of drones as well and have started working on a counter-swarm technology.

Big Data

Big Data is also a large area of interest in future conflicts. The equivalent of the impact of Big Data on the civilian side is “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) on the military side. TIA is a domestic surveillance system that provides “Total Information Awareness” as it relates to cellphone conversations, email discussions, and credit information like banking, spending patterns, and social network interactions from family to business connections. With that type of detail-rich data base, many connections and interrelationships of data will be available to review, assess, and analyze.

Again, if you are creative, and can tie together geofencing, beacons, Big Data analytics, AI, and an army of synchronized drones, you can collect and use information to determine movements of key people, key vehicles, and keep track of attendance at key events.

If we only apply a traditional 20th century strategic defensive focus in future conflicts, we will wind up like the Polish Cavalry facing the approaching Blitzkrieg of steel tanks and dive bombers of the German Army and Luftwaffe in World War II.

Bringing old technology, outdated strategies, and last century’s tactics into the Nanokrieg battlefield will guarantee a short, one-sided battle and a quick surrender, if not total annihilation.

We need to innovate and bring in new technology, creativity, and determine a whole new strategic capability down to the individual soldier and soldiers working as a small unit.

We also need to stay abreast of what other countries are developing and how a new mix of technologies, electronics, AI, and software can create remote robot armies and new forms of non-human spies and terrorists without huge amounts of traditional expenditures and logistics. In this area, we are more likely to be catching up than to be setting the lead.

China’s Trojan drone concept is plausible

To have a standing army of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of drones creates a whole new battlefield scenario for which there is no real defense right now. Is this part of the potential scenarios (drone swarms) that are reviewed for plausibility and discussed in order to have countermeasures? That should be a big question for those concerned with aerial attacks and surveillance.

If the manufacturer has the capability to remotely control, limit, and command all their products in a region, no one can convince me that their government or some rogue terrorist organization cannot use that same power to their advantage and create a virtual army of robots to undertake a diverse range of subversive missions.

Excerpted from the author’s upcoming whitepaper, “China: Building a Silent Remote Robotic Army?”