The attempted assassination of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro last month using a pair of drones armed with explosives made international headlines and is a harbinger of future high-profile attacks using common drones.
Of course drones have been being used to kill people for many years now. Since 9/11, the US government has carried out hundreds of drone strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen.
Drones, or “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV), are piloted by remote control as well as onboard computers. They were first used for surveillance and reconnaissance then were weaponized for the purpose of killing the bad guys.
The CIA has killed a lot of terrorists with weaponized drones. They’ve also killed some civilians too in the process. According the New America Foundation, the US government killed around 2,500 “jihadist militants” with drone strikes. Different organizations have estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of those killed in those strikes were civilians.
Drones are an example of how technology is created for one purpose and then is “redomained” for another. Sometimes this process can be for the common good, other times it’s a disaster. Most of the time the creators of these technologies don’t think about those possible future consequences beforehand. It’s not that they don’t care, but that it’s really difficult to do that, especially with emerging technologies that have to precedents to analyze. Technology is created and released into the wild, then it follows its own course. It evolves. This is the nature of technology. We like to think that we humans fully control technology because we are the ones who created it, but we do not.
Today, you can buy drones online for as low as $100. Higher end commercial-grade models retail for between $20,000 to $50,000. Drones can be equipped with onboard video cameras that provide a live video feed back to the remote pilot. In 2014, some guy used one of these to fly over public parks, people’s backyards, vineyards, and forests to capture footage of people having sex outdoors. He used that footage to create a short film called “Drone Boning”. This raises some immediate privacy concerns. In our drone-laden future, drones with cameras are mobile and are everywhere, eroding your precious privacy even more. (But hey, smile for the camera!)
On December 7, 2016, Amazon delivered its first package with a fully autonomous drone. The service is called Amazon Prime Air and it promises aerial delivery of packages in under 30 minutes. According to Amazon’s website, “It looks like science fiction, but it’s real. One day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road.”
As technology evolves, we change and adapt. If you’re old enough to remember a time before cell phones were common, you might recall how weird it was to be walking down the street and hear somebody talking to themselves only to realize that they were holding a phone their ear. Today, people walk down the street talking into Bluetooth headsets and we don’t even notice. It’s just part of the landscape. Then came texting. I used to get annoyed by people walking down the sidewalk texting. Now I don’t even notice that. Sometimes I’m the person walking down the sidewalk texting or pulling up a map. Today, it’s not uncommon to see people texting while driving. (I’m never that person. Please don’t ever be that person.)
Meanwhile, back in Caracas, President Maduro was giving a speech on a platform while flanked by all of his top military leadership when two drones with explosives strapped to them were detonated. The assassins missed their target and not long after the attack 6 suspects were arrested.
According to Venezuelan Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, the suspects used two DJI M600 drones that were each carrying 1 kilogram of C-4 explosive. The DJI M600 is a professional-grade drone used primarily by photographers and filmmakers. It retails for $5,000.
“The barriers to entry have been lowered so much that literally anyone with enough money to afford a drone and the technical competence of a 12-year-old can pull off an attempt like this,” said Colin Clarke, an international security policy analyst at the RAND corporation, commenting on the incident.
“This [drone attacks] is a very serious, looming threat that we are currently unprepared to confront,” said Department of Homeland Security undersecretary for intelligence and analysis David Glawe and DHS deputy general counsel Hayley Chang in a recent joint testimony to Congress. “Today we are unable to effectively counter malicious use of drones.”
Meanwhile, the unscathed Maduro appears to have a different protection strategy in mind.
“The drones came after me,” Maduro said. “But there was a shield of love that always protects us. I’m sure I’ll live for many more years.”
Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson.