The Drones Are Coming Home to Roost

Almost exactly fifteen years after the first time the United States used a remote controlled flying robot to attack its enemies abroad, the chickens started coming home to roost. Oct. 2, 2016 was the day ISIS used a kamikaze drone to kill a pair of US-allied Kurdish troops and severely wound two French commandos in Iraq. The attack by the so-called Caliphate bookended the decade and a half in which the US and other western militaries had a virtual monopoly on remote-controlled assassination tools.

The American era of drone warfare had begun when the US military tried to assassinate the Taliban leader Mullah Omar on Oct. 7, 2001 with a missile launched from a multimillion dollar Predator drone, and it ended in Mosul with a $200 Chinese-manufactured quadcopter toy filled with cheap explosives.

That Mosul kamikaze drone attack was no fluke either; it has been followed by hundreds of drone attacks on Iraqi and Syrian government troops and US soldiers fighting in the convoluted multi-state war that is wracking the two neighboring countries. Quadcopter drones regularly buzz high over the streets of Mosul and Raqqa as well as rural battlefronts, dropping small bombs on troops, vehicles and even through hatches left open by unwary tank crews, all while broadcasting high definition footage back ‘Caliphate’ propagandists for internet distribution.

ISIS drone footage. Click on the picture to watch the video.

And the worst is yet to come. The relentless improvement in consumer drone technology, combined with open-source Silicon Valley artificial intelligence research, makes it appear inevitable that governments worldwide will soon face the bizarre specter of pre-programmed and entirely autonomous robotic death machines, not as their own tools of repression and military might, but as threats to their power and populations.

For the last decade and a half, drones have helped keep America’s wars abroad as distant things, in which few Americans die, or even must kill anyone up close. Many thousands of foreigners have been killed of course: in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and the vast majority have probably been innocent noncombatants trying to live their daily lives. Americans rarely, if ever, think about what it must be like to live in places where robotic death might rain from the sky at any moment, on the whim of an American politician or general.

In one sense, that comfortable distance already ended when young men calling themselves soldiers of the Caliphate started mass-murdering people in the West; but the day when the drones themselves turn on us seems to be getting very close. The innovations made by all sides on the battlefields of the Syrian Civil War its extension in neighboring Iraq have brought this day very near. The Syrian civil war may well be remembered by military historians as the war where the drone truly came into its own.

Almost as soon as the Syrian uprising morphed into a civil war with territorial control by various factions, with front lines and trench warfare, rebel troops saw the value of the ‘eye in the sky’ that a cheap remote controlled drone with a video feed could provide to battlefield commanders and even platoon-sized units.

For ISIS and Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda) commanders in Iraq and Syria, the lethal combination of a video-capable drone operator and a large supply of truck bombs driven by eager martyrs has proven to be almost as powerful as being able to call in an airstrike. For an instructive view of how very like an air force this combination of drones and suicide bombers can be, watch the following ISIS video in which ISIS drones monitor and guide a complex assault on an Iraqi army fortress in the desert near the border with Saudi Arabia.

Drone footage of Islamic State VBIED attack on Iraqi Army outpost on the border with Saudi Arabia (December, 2015). Liveleaks. Click on the image to watch video.

There are hundreds of like examples, as well as drones being used for artillery spotting, mortar targeting, and guiding tank and infantry assaults. The Syrian and Iraqi armies of course have used spotter drones to similar effect against the guerilla armies they are fighting. By itself, all this is a minor revolution in small-unit warfare in the Syrian civil war and its associated conflicts, a revolution that US troops will undoubtedly face next time they get involve in a serious ground war. Depending on an adversary’s willingness or ability to use suicide truck bombs (in combination with drones), the US will face something very like a guerilla air force in every future conflict.

But as it was a decade and a half ago for the Americans with their Predator reconnaissance drones in Afghanistan, the step from spotter drones to attack drones was an obvious innovation. Although ISIS was apparently not the first to try remotely dropping bombs from a drone, the ‘Caliphate’ has enthusiastically developed the idea over the past year.

These drones are essentially all variations on the cheap, mass market consumer drone flown by remote control from perhaps a mile away. One early ISIS innovation was using 3D printers to modify munitions like grenades so they could be dropped from above with reasonable accuracy, and adding simple remote controlled cups to carry bomblets over Iraqi and Syrian army units, where the cup could be remotely flipped over, dropping the munition onto groups of soldiers in rear areas, or even occasionally through open tank hatches.

From Ukraine to the Arabian Peninsula, other insurgents and militias have begun adopting the ideas and tactics Youtubed to the world by the factions of the Syrian war. In January, Yemen’s Houthi guerillas, fighting off a Saudi Arabian invasion, used a remote-controlled drone boat in a spectacular attack on a Saudi Arabian frigate in the Red Sea, killing and wounding several sailors. A swarming attack with multiple drone boats could certainly have sunk the 2.500 ton frigate.

Soon after, the Houthis unveiled their own series of locally produced flying combat drones, one of which claimed a 100-mile range and a sixty-pound weapon payload.

Syria and Iraq are a preview of the worldwide arms race against cheap drones. There, government troops very quickly had to develop a better awareness of what is going on over their heads, and occasionally have shot down the armed drones.

An obvious weak point of these flying machines is the fact that they are controlled by a human operator, which means that they need a clear two-way radio link to the pilot. Jamming or seizing control of a remote-controlled drone’s video and command frequencies has been the obvious first step for armies facing swarms of DJI Phantoms, and militaries and civilian companies are developing a variety of radio-frequency countermeasures.

Iraqi troops have been spotted using handheld devices to force ISIS drones to land or crash by blocking their signals.

But the day is coming when the drones will no longer need to have a human pilot navigating to a destination, recognizing targets, and pushing the trigger button, and the Pentagon is planning for the future . In April, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored a “Hard Kill Challenge” competition, to assess various ways of shooting down armed drones on the battlefield instead of merely blocking their signals. Armored vehicles are already being fitted out with high-energy lasers to shoot down drones; doubtless such tech will soon be field tested by American allies in Syria and Iraq.

Syria and Iraq are drone warfare’s rapidly evolving present. For a glimpse of the future of battlefield drones, look in places like the San Francisco garage of Lukas Biewald, whose day job is running a company that sells artificial intelligence analysis. In his free time, he tinkers with homemade robots, building them out of cheap motors, sensors, and computer controllers, then teaching them to seek out and recognize real-world objects. Biewald’s entertaining writeups of the process of building his robots, like the four-wheeled vehicle that drives around and finds hammers and beer bottles here, make it clear that anyone with a reasonable amount of computer expertise can do the same.

Using an open source neural network tool released by Google, he trains his robots to recognize everyday objects by showing them hundreds of photographs of similar items. The software runs on cheap computer hardware like the Raspberry Pi (used by homebrew drone hackers worldwide), although Biewald trains the drone’s ‘brain’ to recognize objects and people on a faster computer to speed up the process. In the first video linked above, a wheeled robot drives around identifying various objects in his garage. In the second, a quadcopter drone flies around his garage searching for his friend Chris until it locates him and lands in front of him.

The implications for armed drones scarcely need to be pointed out.

Training a neural network to recognize a particular military uniform so that armed drones can autonomously target soldiers from one side of a conflict without needing a human pilot seems realistic. Training it to seek out a particular person’s face is likewise easy: autonomous assassination tools cannot be far off. Mass produced cheap, armed suicide drones with neural network-trained computers on board, swarming through battlefields or even our own cities, unjammable because they don’t need a human operator, and unstoppable because they are too numerous: a grim vision, but one that the war in Syria and the march of progress in artificial intelligence may make inevitable.

 

Jack Brown