What The Economist Missed in “Welcome to the Drone Age”

Recently The Economist published an article entitled, “Welcome to the Drone Age.” While there were no new revelations exposed, it did an excellent job of consolidating the state of drone proliferation as it stands today. Unfortunately, it didn’t to fully address the illegal uses of drones and failed to offer up suggestions for detection and mitigation of these threats.

For some time now we at Drone Labs have been sounding the alarm as to how the coming tide of drones will result in major security issues. The Economist article states:

“THE scale and scope of the revolution in the use of small, civilian drones has caught many by surprise. In 2010 America’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) estimated that there would, by 2020, be perhaps 15,000 such drones in the country. More than that number are now sold there every month. And it is not just an American craze. Some analysts think the number of drones made and sold around the world this year will exceed 1m.”

For too long people have overlooked the coming threat, particularly in the United States. The idea that illegal drone use will continue to rise is not speculation; it is already happening. In any given population a percentage of people will engage in illegal acts—drone use is no different. Before we address the challenges of drone misuse let’s take a moment to acknowledge the positive impact drones will have on society.

Positive drone use includes assisting fire fighters, search and rescue, delivery of medicine, and much more. As the article notes:

“Because drones are cheap, geographers who could never afford conventional aerial surveys are able to use them to track erosion, follow changes in rivers’ sources and inspect glaciers. Archaeologists and historians are taking advantage of software that permits drones fitted with ordinary digital cameras to produce accurate 3D models of landscapes or buildings. This lets them map ancient ruins and earthworks. Drones can also go where manned aircraft cannot, including the craters of active volcanoes and the interiors of caves. A drone operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts, has even snatched breath samples from spouting whales for DNA analysis. And drones are, as might be expected, particularly useful for studying birds. A standard shop-bought drone can, for example, be used unmodified for counting nests high in a forest’s canopy.”

At this point the author does a plausible job of describing illegal drone use:

“Other roles for drones are more questionable. Their use to smuggle drugs and phones into prisons is growing. Instances have been reported in America, Australia, Brazil, Britain and Canada, to name but a few places. In Britain the police have also caught criminals using drones to scout houses to burgle. The crash of a drone on to the White House lawn in January highlighted the risk that they might be used for acts of terrorism. And in June a video emerged of KATSU, a pseudonymous graffito artist, using a drone equipped with an aerosol spray to deface one of New York’s most prominent billboards.”


The breadth and treatment of these subjects is refreshingly lucid compared to many other articles we have seen. In a single paragraph the author hit on many of the threats. I want to address a few major categories of threats, some addressed in the article and some not, to ensure deeper awareness.


Drones are absolutely being used to smuggle contraband into prisons on a daily basis. We have had many conversations with prison officials who are dealing with this issue. Ironically, cell phones appear to be the most common item smuggled into prisons.



As the article states, drones are being used to gather intelligence. The piece cites a well-known case in which thieves used a drone to “case” houses looking for potential targets. While this is certainly bad news, you may not have known that ISIS is also using recreational drones like the DJI Phantom FC40 to possibly prepare for battle. And the potential for other misdeeds exist as well. What about the child molester who uses a drone to locate a victim? Or an unstable spouse who uses a drone to spy on his ex-wife’s house?



There have been far fewer reported incidents of drones used for vandalism than I would have expected. The infamous defacing of a billboard in New York City certainly stands out but, beyond that, there really aren’t any notable examples. One reason for this is that a criminal can’t just buy a drone and start committing vandalism with it. In most cases the drone needs to be modified. In the billboard example, the drone was modified with a mechanism to spray paint. This requires skill that most people don’t have and could account for the lack of incidents.



The Economist mentions the drone that flew onto the White House lawn as having the potential for acts of terrorism but it completely missed the radioactive drone that landed on the official residence of Japan’s Prime Minister. The White House incident involved a drunken federal employee whereas the Japanese incident was premeditated and clearly intended to cause fear. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning. Recently, a drone flew into (thankfully) empty stands at tennis’ U.S. Open in New York. What if that same drone had been carrying Anthrax or some other agent? What if it was just carrying flour? A large crowd of people seeing powder fall from a drone would certainly cause panic and result in injuries or death.


Non-Flying Drones

Because of their popularity, flying drones are the focus of most articles when it comes to threats. However, we need to pay attention to ground and underwater drones as well, yet these threats are largely ignored. To be fair, they haven’t advanced as fast as flying drones so there is still time to address the threat but they will definitely be another vector for illegal activities.



Interestingly, the most dangerous drones may wind up being the ones flown by people with an abundance of ignorance. Even though the FAA has established rules and attempted to educate the public, the simple fact is most people either don’t know the rules or simply choose to ignore them. A perfect example was the drones flying over the California wildfires that prevented emergency services from trying to put the fires out. With the overwhelming proliferation of drones comes a certain percentage of the population who are ignorant of their proper use and, literally, unable to fly them without mishaps.


Addressing the Issue

All of these are samples of the problems we are facing today. Estimates put the number of drones sold by the end of 2015 at 1 million. By the end of 2016 the estimate is there will be as many as 2 million. How do we deal with the problem? The Economist article suggests that, “[…] the new machines are so cheap, so useful and have so much unpredictable potential that the best approach to regulation may simply be to let a thousand flyers zoom.” This is, to put it mildly, completely irresponsible—even insane.

The solution to illegal drone use is to take the same approach we use with our Drone Detector® system: layers. No one method is 100% effective to detect drones, which is why we use multiple methods. So, too, no one deterrent will be effective against illegal drone use.
As I noted in a prior article, the punishment should fit the crime. Legislation should be strict enough to address clearly intentional acts but fair enough to recognize accidental misuse when it happens. Additionally, drone manufacturers should be required to put safety mechanisms into their drones to comport with the laws of the country they are sold in. Many of them do this voluntarily but making it mandatory sends a clearer message.

Finally, there needs to be case law built up to help understand where the boundaries exist. Right now, people are confused as to what constitutes proper drone operation. Some precedent-setting cases will help define this better and help society as we learn to integrate drones into our lives.
The Economist article was a good overview of drones; however, it completely missed some areas. At Drone Labs we wanted to dig deeper into the subject of illegal drone use because we believe education is the best weapon we have going forward.

Comments are closed.