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How drones are making their way onto the battlefield

« It is virtually impossible to defend against drones »

Thierry Berthier, Scientific director of the European professional federation for security drones
On November 28th, 2023 |
4 min reading time
Thierry Berthier
Thierry Berthier
Scientific director of the European professional federation for security drones
Key takeaways
  • The use of drones dates back to the early 2000s in the fight against terrorism by the Americans.
  • There is an enormous variety of drones to suit different uses: civilian (leisure or professional) or military (combat, intelligence, etc.).
  • Drones can represent a risk, because they are very accessible, inexpensive, and highly adaptable, and their effectiveness is formidable.
  • Since 2021, the Drones4Sec Federation has been working to improve defence against drone attacks, particularly so-called “swarm” attacks.

Since when have drones been used on a massive scale?

It was the Unit­ed States, in the ear­ly 2000s, that start­ed using drones to elim­i­nate ter­ror­ist tar­gets in the trib­al areas of Pak­istan and Afghanistan. At the time, they were big machines. They looked like fight­er jets, flew high and could not be oper­at­ed by civil­ians or ter­ror­ists. But those days are gone for good.

These days, drones aren’t just for the armed forces. Who else can use them?

Yes, they are now being used more and more for civil­ian appli­ca­tions, which is very inter­est­ing. For exam­ple, farm­ers can use small, inex­pen­sive drones (cost­ing from €600) to spread fer­tilis­er equal­ly over fields. The prob­lem? These are the same drones that will be bought by drug traf­fick­ers or ter­ror­ist groups, divert­ed from their intend­ed use. Mex­i­can car­tels, for exam­ple, buy agri­cul­tur­al drones and replace weed­killer sprayers with the same weight of grenades weigh­ing around 10–20 kg. These days, it’s almost as easy to make your own drone kit as it is to assem­ble a piece of Ikea fur­ni­ture! You can also adapt it to your par­tic­u­lar needs, with a bat­tery that lasts longer or short­er, a cam­era of vary­ing res­o­lu­tion, and a vari­able con­trol dis­tance. In short, there’s some­thing for every pur­pose and every price…

Are drones more or less suited to certain conflicts? 

They are now used in all con­flicts, but they are par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful in cer­tain con­fig­u­ra­tions. In the war against Hamas, the Israelis can use them to get inside tun­nels. If they were only to send men to these loca­tions, the loss of life would be much higher.

Is it very difficult to defend against a drone attack, and if so, why?

Yes. The prob­lem with drones is that they are very easy and inex­pen­sive. Also, it’s very com­pli­cat­ed, if not impos­si­ble in some con­fig­u­ra­tions, to defend against them. For “sim­ple” attacks involv­ing a lim­it­ed num­ber of drones, there are, of course, sys­tems for detect­ing the intru­sion of a drone into a pro­tect­ed area (air­port, sta­di­um, etc.), then jam­ming its nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem, or destroy­ing the air­craft. How­ev­er, cer­tain so-called “swarm” attacks, which involve send­ing sev­er­al dozen – or even sev­er­al hun­dred – drones in mul­ti­ple direc­tions, are vir­tu­al­ly unstop­pable. Beyond thir­ty drones, it becomes com­pli­cat­ed to defend oneself.

Are you working on improving defence?

Yes, I’m in charge of the sci­en­tif­ic com­mit­tee of the first Euro­pean fed­er­a­tion of secu­ri­ty drones, DRONES4SEC, launched in 2021.We are work­ing on anti-drone mod­el­ling. For exam­ple, in a swarm attack con­fig­u­ra­tion, we are try­ing to cal­cu­late how many drones need to be launched at the same time, at what speed, along what tra­jec­to­ries and to neu­tralise as many hos­tile vec­tors as pos­si­ble. A tech­no­log­i­cal plat­form will be devel­oped for this purpose.

In addi­tion, at Euro­pean lev­el, we are work­ing with PARROT (Europe’s lead­ing drone man­u­fac­tur­er) on a ‘trust­ed drone’ label, which would guar­an­tee drone buy­ers that their flight data and per­son­al data will not be exfil­trat­ed each time they use a drone. Some drone man­u­fac­tur­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly Chi­nese ones, have major prob­lems with respect for per­son­al data. In fact, the main Chi­nese drone man­u­fac­tur­er, the world leader in the sec­tor, is now banned from sell­ing to secu­ri­ty forces in North Amer­i­ca for this very reason.

Superpowers are no longer the only ones making drones?

Turkey, India, Iran, and Israel are all very active in the pro­duc­tion of civil­ian and mil­i­tary drones. While nuclear weapons are still reserved for a very select club of major pow­ers, drones are on the way to becom­ing “the poor man’s weapon”. Fixed-wing drones car­ry­ing 2–3 kg of explo­sives are used as kamikaze drones against all kinds of high-val­ue tar­gets: armoured vehi­cles, tanks, artillery, sup­ply trucks, radar, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems. These prowl­ing muni­tions rep­re­sent a minor rev­o­lu­tion in the “art of war”. With very low pro­duc­tion costs and almost infi­nite mul­ti­pli­ca­tion pos­si­bil­i­ties, these muni­tions can be used to destroy high­ly tac­ti­cal tar­gets on the ene­my’s side, which are often very cost­ly. The destruc­tion ratio (i.e. the cost of the prowl­ing muni­tion ver­sus the cost of the tar­get) clear­ly favours the attack­er and forces the attacked to deploy sophis­ti­cat­ed and cost­ly means of protection.

Is there a huge variety of drones?

Yes. An aer­i­al drone ded­i­cat­ed to intel­li­gence can remain in the air for 24 hours, with­out a pilot on board, while car­ry­ing out its data-gath­er­ing mis­sion. Oth­ers are designed for com­bat or artillery guid­ance. Quad­copter micro-UAVs (with four pro­pellers) are used by the Russ­ian and Ukrain­ian armies to “clear” a trench by drop­ping grenades ver­ti­cal­ly on the tar­get­ed fight­ers, with cen­time­tre accu­ra­cy. These drones are often com­mer­cial indus­tri­al drones trans­formed into grenade launch­ers, using a rudi­men­ta­ry charge-car­ry­ing system.

Some can oper­ate in ful­ly auto­mat­ic mode, car­ry­ing out a mis­sion on a tar­get on their own and return­ing. Oth­er machines must always be under the con­trol of a remote pilot, from a greater or less­er dis­tance. Above all, there are drones for every envi­ron­ment: the air, but also land, sea, and even under­wa­ter robots! The Turks recent­ly demon­strat­ed three drone launch­es on the sur­face of the water, paint­ed blue so they could­n’t be spot­ted. They man­aged to cut the hull of a car­go ship in half at sea! It was only a test, but it gives you an idea of the pow­er of these machines…

What’s the smallest drone?

The “Black Hor­net” is a micro recon­nais­sance drone that looks like a heli­copter, but mea­sures just 10 cm and weighs 30 g. The Amer­i­cans sell it for €40,000 but the Chi­nese have just put an inspired ver­sion on the mar­ket for 130 dol­lars! For this price, it weighs just 20g more than the orig­i­nal, is bare­ly any big­ger, and offers almost the same per­for­mance… The fall in the price of civil­ian drones and robots will lead to their wide­spread use in all areas of activity. 

What about civil uses?

There are more and more of them. Dur­ing the last earth­quake in Moroc­co, drones were sent inside build­ings that were still stand­ing to spot cracks and iden­ti­fy which could be saved and which could not. After the storms in France, some roofers used drones to spot miss­ing tiles on roofs and inter­vene direct­ly where necessary.

Interview by Marina Julienne

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