When Canadian soldiers go to Mali this summer, they may be facing a new threat in the form of inexpensive consumer drones turned into flying IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.
Weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles are turning up in conflicts around the world.
Just seven years ago, Libyan rebels bought a small drone listed for sale at $120,000 dollars. Ironically, it was made by a Canadian manufacturer. The rebels came across the drone in an internet search.
Today, any group can afford a drone, with just several hundred dollars.
“With the proliferation of drone technology, you see almost all combatants starting to exploit different facets of the technology,” said Richard Shimooka, a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald Laurier Institute, a military think tank in Ottawa.
It’s a leveling of the battlefield, with insurgents and terror groups able to attack enemies from the air.
“I think that if you are going to send soldiers into any conflict area, you better be looking to the skies,” said Todd Humphreys, an engineer who studies drone and anti-drone systems at the University of Texas at Austin. “Whether it’s expensive or cheap equipment being flown up there as drones, you’re probably going to see something up there.”
A video recently released by a rebel group in Mali shows that it, too, has access to drones.
Much of the group’s propaganda video was shot from the air with a drone.
So far, insurgent groups like the ones operating in Mali have only been using them for surveillance, but weaponizing them isn’t much of a leap.
“The parties that are hostile to the UN have used drones over UN camps,” said Walter Dorn. “But so far, not for using explosives.”
Dorn is a professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College. He visited Mali in January and says hostile parties are using drones for surveillance and to look for vulnerabilities.
“They’re getting small, they’re getting much more stealthy, yet the computational power and the resolution of those cameras is extraordinary. So the information they’re able to send back is very valuable for those who are sending out these drones,” Humphreys said. “It might just be surveying you, but it might carrying something a lot more lethal than cameras.”
In its most recent white paper on defence policy, “Strong, Secure, Engaged”, the Canadian government acknowledges the threat.
“As the development of remotely piloted systems increases, this technology is proliferating among potential adversaries. Expanded proliferation, combined with technological advancement, will mean that Canada is faced with a variety of possible threats from remotely piloted systems. These range from non-state actors using unsophisticated and commercially available remotely piloted aerial systems to conduct reconnaissance, to advanced potential state adversaries developing high-end, weaponized systems.”
Canada does not have any drone jamming capabilities, although there are dozens of products on the market.
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Anti-UAV systems are a booming industry that analysts predict will be worth more than 2 billion dollars within five years. Options range from drone jamming vehicles to nets fired from guns.
Last year, the Pentagon spent $700 million dollars on a program to test lasers and high-tech nets, to thwart the threat from drones used by the so-called Islamic State.
Dorn says there are efforts in Mali to counter drone use by jihadist groups.
“Part of the procedure that will be used by the Canadian Armed Forces and by the UN is to look at drones in the air and how they can be used by opponents,” said Dorn. “And these drones should be neutralized and the UN is now exploring ways to neutralize drones. They currently have projects.”