Maduro assassination attempt highlights drone threats

Aug. 10, 2018
Anti-drone tech experts discuss the impact of the attack, mitigation challenges facing the industry

With the proliferation of consumer-grade drones in recent years, there have been a number of influential voices within the security industry who have expressed concern over the potential threats posed by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the wrong hands. From close encounters with jetliners to their use as weapons on the battlefields of the Middle East, the destructive capabilities of drones have already been well-demonstrated in real-world scenarios.

If these malicious use cases weren’t bad enough, security practitioners can now count drones as tools that can be leveraged for targeted assassination attempts after a group of conspirators attempted to kill Nicolas Maduro, the much-maligned president of Venezuela, using UAVs outfitted with plastic explosives on Sunday. According to reports, security officials were able to bring the drones down using radio signal jamming technology. Although no one was killed in the incident, seven soldiers were wounded, including three who were seriously injured.

According to Logan Harris, CEO of SpotterRF, which develops surveillance radar solutions for detecting drones and other perimeter security threats, the assassination attempt on Maduro’s life will certainly heighten awareness surrounding the threats presented by UAVs and hopefully drive home how the risk landscape has changed.  

“Air attacks in the past have been something that only a large nation-state could muster and now that has all changed,” Harris says. “Now we’re dealing with what I like to call flying IEDs, they’re small, improvised and fairly easy to weaponize. It’s almost like a poor man’s cruise missile where you can put some explosive on it or some other agent and then you can program it to deliver it to a specific GPS location without even being under command and control. The operator can set that up, push go and then take off. It’s a whole new paradigm for security.”

While the attack against Maduro is the first known assassination attempt against a head of state using a drone, Oleg Vornik, CEO of DroneShield, maker of both drone detection and jamming solutions, said it’s not the first time that a world leader has had a brush with one in a public forum.

“The history of commercial drone incidents involving heads of state goes back to September 2013 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s public appearance was disrupted by a drone, which was apparently a publicity stunt by a competing political party,” Vornik explains. “An attempted drone assassination of a sitting sovereign leader demonstrates that, sadly, the era of drone terrorism has well and truly arrived.”

Pablo Estrada, VP of Marketing for Dedrone, which provides drone identification and tracking systems as well as jamming technology, says that while using UAVs to carry out a terror attack is not a new concept, the fact that such a high-profile individual like Maduro was targeted in this incident reminds everyone that the threat is out there and is real. “Drones are, if anything, more accessible today than they were just a few years ago, cheaper, easier to fly and people need to protect themselves,” he says.

Mitigation Barriers

Even though facilities, such as chemical processing plants and stadiums, have never had to worry about airborne threats before, Harris says the tools they have at their disposal to actually bring down a drone once they’ve detected it are limited because in the U.S., typically only the government and the military are allowed to legally use jamming equipment. Jamming is not the only way to bring down a drone and there a number of companies that offer other solutions as UAV mitigation options, but Harris says jamming is really the best and safest option.

“You can jam the command-and-control link if it’s being operated on fairly common communication links like Wi-Fi or sometimes it’s 900 MHz or 428 MHz. These are kind of RC plane frequencies that are used for command and control and those jammers are readily available and they’re not particularly hard to build,” Harris explains. “And there’s jamming GPS, which is a secondary option.”

According to Harris, jamming command and control is typically done first because most drones will either stop or return home after they have lost the command and control signal. With GPS jamming, Harris said that most drones on the market currently can’t tell where they are when they lose GPS and will come down, which could be dangerous if it is carrying an explosive payload.

“You only want to jam GPS when you need to over an area that’s clear of any people or critical infrastructure,” Harris adds.

Currently, however, Harris says that impeding the flight of any aircraft, including drones, is prohibited under several different U.S. laws. That means the only option available today for many critical infrastructure operators is to find the operator of drone and tell them to bring it down, which Harris said is simply not good enough.

“The laws are in the process of being changed and updated, but it has been a long process and I hope that accelerates,” he says. “There is technology available out there that can be used to detect, identify and deter drones but the real main impediment to (leveraging those systems) is not technological but rather a regulatory problem.”

Passive Mitigation

For many organizations, however, Estrada says the main concern is not protecting their facility against a terror attack but in preventing corporate espionage, which can be more easily accomplished with currently available solutions.

“Of course, we do have private sector companies and individuals who are our clients and they typically will use passive mitigation techniques and by that I mean mitigation techniques that don’t directly interfere with the drone or jam the radio frequencies that they use and will instead focus on protecting themselves,” he explains. “At least in the case of private sector companies, they typically have a slightly different concern with the drone threat than say a head of state because they are more concerned usually with espionage, spying and hacking, which drones are capable of doing as well. A typical enterprise company in the private sector will be much more focused on that than an explosive drone.”

Regardless of whether jamming technology becomes legally accessible to more end-users in the near future, Vornik says that security professionals are going to have to be prepared to stave off UAV threats moving forward.

“Technological progress cannot be reversed, and going forward, the security of any asset whose perimeter is protected two-dimensionally on the ground will need to be also protected in the third dimension – from attacks from the air,” Vornik concludes.

About the Author:

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at [email protected].