Technology can be a good thing and a bad thing. On 14 September, two key oil plants in Saudi Arabia were hit by a drone attack that halted production of 5.7 million barrels of crude oil a day, i.e., more than half of Saudi Arabia’s global daily exports and more than 5 per cent of the world’s daily crude oil production. Yemen rebel group Houthis, who claimed responsibility for the attack, said they used 10 drones, i.e., unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to carry out the attacks.
These attacks have seized the attention of security experts around the world over the increasing use of drones by terror groups. Sensitive sites such as airports, oil and nuclear facilities, borders, prisons, stadiums and crowded spaces are particularly vulnerable to hostile intrusion by drones. The aspect that could make drone attack a popular choice for anti-social elements is the possibility for the operator to remain incognito when operating in a densely populated area.
The drone regulations of India (in effect from December 2018) provide that every UAV that weighs above 250 gram and can fly over an altitude of 50 feet has to be registered and regulated through an online platform called Digital Sky. Users also have to define their flight plan for every flight using the Digital Sky app and the drone can take off only after receiving permission, which gets verified by the hardware inside the drone. If there is any violation of the approved flight plan, it is recorded in Digital Sky and action can be taken action against the defaulter. It is pertinent to note that even though action can be taken against the offender, the fact remains that anybody can still get the drones in the sky and cause colossal damage within a few seconds. There is an urgent need to develop an anti-drone system that can immediately shoot or bring down rogue drones. Moving one step forward, a further mechanism will be needed to control the collateral damage that is likely to be caused in crowded areas due to the falling debris. A better option may be to develop technology that prevents drones from deviating from a pre-fixed route even if the operator wants it to deviate.
Also no drone-flying zones such as high security areas, airports, and defence installations have been geo-fenced and any flying objects sending out radio signals can be detected in these sensitive areas through radar but such mechanisms are not available in public airspace. To completely clamp down on drone attacks, elaborate air defence architecture would be needed to cover every nook and corner of the country but the cost of having such a widespread layout of radars would be prohibitive. Also, to avoid detection, miscreants may use a small UAV that have very small radar cross-section, inhibiting their radar detection.
Formulation of rules for drone operations is still work in progress in many countries including India. As the drone space gets too crowded, it will be important to deploy an air traffic control exclusively for drones to help ease out drone congestion in the skies and it may also help to have a multilateral convention or treaty to regulate UAV manufacture and operations.