When Drones Attack: The Threat Remains Limited

Jul 17, 2018 | 08:00 GMT

Payload limits and other factors make commercial drones more effective as surveillance platforms than a means of attack.

A drone flies during practice day at the National Drone Racing Championships on Governors Island, August 5, 2016, in New York City.

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


  • Commercial drones have become widely available, not only to hobbyists but also to those with more nefarious purposes.
  • To date, attacks by non-state actors using drones have involved dropping military ordnance from commercial models.
  • The difficulty of obtaining military ordnance or fabricating improvised drone munitions will serve as a limiting factor for such attacks.
  • A drone attack in the West by a terrorist is likely to cause more panic than outright damage.

Attacks involving drones likely will only become more common and will eventually pose a global problem. On July 11, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point published a study of the Islamic State's drone program by Don Rassler that detailed how the group was able to obtain commercial drones and components that it used to conduct both surveillance and attacks. However, an individual or a small terrorist cell wishing to obtain a drone or two for an attack does not have to go to such lengths. Commercial drones are readily available for sale around the globe. Most commercial drones can carry relatively small payloads -- the popular DJI Phantom 4, for example, can bear just over a pound. Heavy-lift drones available for commercial sale that can carry over 20 pounds are far more expensive, and their purchasers will face more scrutiny. However, as the technology becomes more mature, and drones...

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