Expert: Ability to Disable Drones Needed Before They Become Terrorist Weapons

One expert wants the U.S. to create a way to disable drones before terrorists use them as weapons.

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With the FAA ready to open American airspace to drones, a technology expert says the government should be developing drone-jamming technology to prevent unmanned aircraft from carrying out terrorist attacks on American soil.

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Drones with a "first person view"— meaning a front-facing, static camera—can be flown from thousands of miles away with great precision, says John Villasenor, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who spoke about the future of domestic drone use Wednesday.

With the FAA expected to release rules regarding private drone use by the end of the year, commercial and private drones might be allowed to start flying in the near future. It's a market drone makers can't wait to break into, with some experts expecting tens of thousands of unmanned drones to be flying in American airspace within a few years.

With more of these unmanned aircraft in the skies, it becomes harder to tell which, if any, are malicious. As GPS technology improves, terrorists might be able to use drones to perform precision strikes on key buildings.

"It would make no sense at all for terrorists to use a drone to attack a mall or civilian building," because of the relatively small payload they could carry, he said. "But sensitive government and military facilities are a different story. Drones would be much harder to stop than a car or truck."

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It's something the military has worried about before, as long ago as 2005, when the Institute for Defense Analyses wrote a 44-page report detailing the potential for terrorist-controlled drones.

And it's not unprecedented for terrorists to consider using the aircraft. Al-Qaeda and Colombia's FARC have both experimented with unmanned weaponry, according to the Institute for Defense Analyses report.

On American soil, a drone being operated by the Mexican federal police crashed in El Paso, Texas in late 2010. In detailing the incident, Villasenor wrote that "before the crash, U.S. officials had not even been aware that drones were operating in the area. Had the incursion been purposeful, targeted, and malicious as opposed to accidental, it appears highly unlikely that it would have been detected and stopped in advance of reaching its target."

"As drones become smaller and quieter, they become easier to move and launch, and harder to detect in operation," he continued.

Villasenor says that once the technology to jam drones is developed, it should be implemented at sensitive government locations.

"I would expect we won't be hearing a lot of details about that work," he said. "But I hope they recognize the value of those solutions."