Drones have changed the face of warfare in many combat zones around the world. American Predators, along with a number of others, have provided U.S. forces with increased surveillance capabilities and can even conduct offensive operations without risking any American lives. However, as military drone technology has improved, commercial drones available for purchase in the civilian sector have advanced as well, creating a new kind of threat for U.S. and coalition forces in theater: modified commercial drones being used as weapons by terrorist organizations like ISIS.
For a few hundred dollars, just about anyone can now purchase a drone that could easily be used to surveil a combat zone, spot enemy forces on the approach, or even drop explosives on enemy soldiers without them ever being close enough to get off a single shot.
“Drone workshops” have been found in previously held ISIS territory, in places like Iraq, and coalition forces have been killed by drones that either dropped explosives over soldiers or were remotely detonated. These remote-controlled flying IEDs can cause serious problems for soldiers taking the fight to ISIS in places like Mosul, where narrow streets prevent armored vehicles from accompanying coalition troops engaged in the fight.
Fortunately, there may be a way to significantly hinder groups like ISIS from using commercial drones in combat zones like Iraq, and DJI just did it. For those who may not be aware, DJI is the largest manufacturer of civilian drones on the planet, accounting for over a third of all drones sold worldwide. Last month, they quietly released a software patch and update for the DJI Go application used to control their drones that included newly established “geofencing” areas that won’t allow their drones to take to the air while inside of combat zones like Mosul.
DJI has been using and testing their geofencing technique since as early as 2013, though all previous efforts were over significantly smaller regions, such as individual sports stadiums or airports.
“Our geofencing system is designed to advise pilots of airspace restrictions, and was never intended to enforce laws or thwart people who want to misuse our products,” Barbara Stelzner, DJI’s spokesperson, told the media.
She added that certain “areas vital for aviation safety or national security are marked as restricted in our geofencing system, and we are constantly adjusting those areas to account for temporary conditions that create special restrictions, such as wildfires and major public events.”
However, in October of last year, the New York Times broke a story about ISIS drone pilots relying heavily on the DJI Phantom, a remote-piloted drone that can reach speeds between 31 and 45 miles per hour (depending on the specific model) and is often equipped with explosives to be used as robotic kamikazes. Despite refuting the report, DJI issued a statement at the time that made it clear they want to ensure their products are used only for “peaceful and creative” endeavors.
Of course, this software update won’t truly stop terrorists from using drones produced by DJI or other manufacturers, as geofencing can be circumvented through creative programming or by confusing the miniature aircraft’s GPS sensors, but adding that hurdle could make it less cost or time effective to produce weaponized commercial drones. If a software patch stops one drone from successfully detonating over an American soldier in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria, it makes this update well worth the effort.
Image courtesy of Tested