Small, Cheap UAVs are Making the Pentagon Nervous, so DARPA is Stepping in to Help

by Darien Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh is a contributor for War is Boring and Reverb Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for Auntie Bellum.

Artist's rendition of DARPA's Aerial Dragnet program (Image via DARPA).

Artist’s rendition of DARPA’s Aerial Dragnet program (Image via DARPA).

The Video below, supposedly recorded near Aleppo in August 2016 shows what appears to be drones targeting rebel forces. The 42-second video includes three clips shot from slow-moving, low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The first two clips show nearby targets being hit, seemingly, by other drones in the area. In the third clip, you can see what look like submunitions drop from a drone as it films. The submunitions land just outside of a rebel building below, as the occupants run from inside.

Drone strikes in Syria are nothing new. What made this story exceptional was who controlled the drones and what kind of drones they were. The Lebanese-based Islamic militia Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the attack, and they weren’t using anything that comes close to resembling the Predator drones we’ve come to associate with unmanned warfare. According to David Axe at The Daily Beast, Hezbollah most likely used commercial quadcopters that retail for around $200 to drop Chinese-made MZD-2 or similar “grenade-sized” submunitions on the rebels.

The incident added yet another element of chaos to the already exceptionally complex war going on in Syria. “As if Syrian regime forces, Russian airstrikes, and internal squabbling weren’t enough to worry about, Syrian rebels have apparently now come under attack from Hezbollah drones dropping bombs,” Axe writes at the time.

Considering that the United States launched the first successful drone strike in 2001, only fifteen years ago, Hezbollah has a surprisingly long history of employing UAVs. Until recently, paramilitaries and terrorist organizations were particularly known for their use of drones. Hezbollah got off to an early start on this front.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reports that Hezbollah began flying spy drones into Israeli territory as early as 2004, “catching Israeli intelligence off guard”. In November of that year, a Hezbollah drone hovered over the town of Nahariya in Western Galilee before returning to Lebanon. The Israeli Air Force failed to intercept it.

Hezbollah flew a Mirsad-1, which FAS describes as an updated version of the Iranian Mohajer reconnaissance drone, during that mission. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s religious and military leader, used the foray as propaganda to lift the morale of his troops and threaten Israel.

Remains of a Hezbollah drone shot down by the Israeli Air Force in October, 2012.

Remains of a Hezbollah drone shot down by the Israeli Air Force in October, 2012 (Source: Dan Gettinger and Arthur Holland Michel, “A Brief History of Hamas and Hezbollah’s Drones“, Center for the Study of the Drone, 14.07.2014).

At a public rally Nasrallah boasted that the drones “can be laden with a quantity of explosives, 40 to 50 kilograms, and can hit any target, be it water or power plant, a military base or airport” and strike “anywhere deep, deep” in Israel, according to a contemporary Associated Press report.

Since 2004, Hezbollah has sent Mirsad and Iranian-made Ababil drones into Israel on several occasions, including an attempted three-drone attack during Israel’s 2006 incursion into southern Lebanon. In that attack, three Ababils, each carrying a “40-50 kilogram explosive warhead”, were shot down en route to three different targets, according to FAS. In 2012, Israel shot down a Hezbollah spy drone right outside of the town of Dimona in the Negev Desert. This, too, surprised Israel, as Dimona is the site of its nuclear launch facilities (see also: “How big of a threat are drones to Israel’s security?“,, 11.08.2016).

Hezbollah adding cheap, readily available drones to its arsenal of more advanced drones is certain to make Israel, Syrian rebels, and any other potential targets in the region uncomfortable. And Hezbollah is not the only organization adopting such drones. For the past several months, the terror organisation “Islamic State” (ISIS) has increasingly used commercial drones for reconnaissance in Syria and Iraq.

For instance, coalition forces destroyed an ISIS drone on 17 March 2015. “It was a commercially available, remotely piloted aircraft, really something anyone can get”, Army spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told Matthew L. Schehl The Marine Times. “We observed it flying for approximately 20 minutes. We observed it land. We observed the enemy place it in the trunk of a car and we struck the car.”

The strike on the car marked the first time coalition forces targeted an “Islamic State” UAV. In the subsequent months, coalition forces have destroyed at least five additional “Islamic State” drones, all of them either commercial or “improvised,” according to The Marine Times.

Iraqi Sergeant Hussain Musa Kathum reportedly shot down an ISIS-controlled DJI Phantom 3 quadcopter near al-Jirashi, in the Anbar province, in April 2016. The Phantom 3 retails for about $1,000.

Iraqi Sergeant Hussain Musa Kathum with the Islamic State Phantom 3 quadcopter he shot down in Anbar province (Photo: Iraqi Ministry of Defense).

Iraqi Sergeant Hussain Musa Kathum with the Islamic State Phantom 3 quadcopter he shot down in Anbar province (Photo: Iraqi Ministry of Defense).

“[T]he militants’ growing use of drones highlights an important battlefield development in the conflict in Iraq and Syria”, writes Schehl. “The enemy is now regularly employing this technology for everything from propaganda videos and surveillance to indirect fire spotting and, possibly, weapons delivery.” It’s this inevitable rise in the deployment of these low-cost UAVs that has the Pentagon worried. As the commercial market for inexpensive drones expands, more and more paramilitaries, terrorist organizations, and individuals will begin using them for reconnaissance and attacks.

The Pentagon has turned to the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA), once again, to address this growing threat. In response, DARPA announced the Aerial Dragnet program in September 2016.

A primary concern in dealing with small, slow, low-flying UAVs like the ones ISIS uses, or the ones Hezbollah used in the attack in Syria, is that traditional radar systems fail to register or track them. In areas with an extended line of vision, this is not as great a concern because soldiers and other potential targets can, hopefully, identify and neutralize or evade the drones. However, in urban environments, where lines of vision can be extremely limited, such UAVs launched from nearby could pose a serious threat.

DARPA’s plan is to create a new type of surveillance network for detecting small, commercial drones. If the plan sound extremely complicated or even far fetched, remember that it was DARPA that brought us drone spy beatles and sponsored the development of plant-eating robots that could, theoretically, endure prolonged missions without needing refueling. If anyone is up to the task, it’s them. “To achieve the technically difficult goal of mapping small UAS in urban terrain, DARPA today announced its Aerial Dragnet program,” reads a September 13 press release on the DARPA website. “The program seeks innovative technologies to provide persistent, wide-area surveillance of all UAS operating below 1,000 feet in a large city.” DARPA notes that while the program will initially be used to protect military personnel, it could eventually be employed by civilian authorities to protect against terrorist attacks.

The press release compares Aerial Dragnet, in basic terms, to the systems the Federal Aviation Administration and other aviation organizations currently use to track commercial and private planes. “Commercial websites currently exist that display in real time the tracks of relatively high and fast aircraft—from small general aviation planes to large airliners — all overlaid on geographical maps as they fly around the country and the world”, Jeff Krolik, DARPA program manager, is quoted as saying in the press release. “We want a similar capability for identifying and tracking slower, low-flying unmanned aerial systems, particularly in urban environments.”

Aerial Dragnet is still in its planning stages, and researchers still lack a clear vision of exactly what the details of the program may entail. The press release announcing Aerial Dragnet is riddled with words like “seeks”, “notionally”, and “perhaps”:

The program seeks an array of innovative approaches, but notionally envisions a network of surveillance nodes, each providing coverage of a neighborhood-sized urban area, perhaps mounted on tethered or long-endurance UAS. Using sensor technologies that can look over and between buildings, the surveillance nodes would maintain UAS tracks even when the craft disappear from sight around corners or behind objects. The output of the Aerial Dragnet system would be a continually updated common operational picture (COP) of the airspace at altitudes below where current aircraft surveillance systems can monitor, disseminated electronically to authorized users via secure data links. — “Keeping a Watchful Eye on Low-Flying Unmanned Aerial Systems in Cities“, DARPA, 13.09.2016.

One thing that Aerial Dragnet is predicting and preparing for is the potential widespread demand for the program coupled with the rapidly changing landscape of automated warfare. Israel would likely be interested in Aerial Dragnet or a similar system considering that ISIS and Hezbollah, both of whom are antagonistic to Israel, are right across its northern borders. The Palestinian militant group Hamas has also flown small, domestic-made drones into Israeli airspace in the past. Hamas also reportedly captured an Israeli reconnaissance drone in August of 2015, returned it to an operational status, and is perhaps trying to reproduce it.

“Because of the large market for inexpensive small UAS, the program will focus on combining low cost sensor hardware with software-defined signal processing hosted on existing UAS platforms,” the press release reads . “The resulting surveillance systems would thus be cost-effectively scalable for larger coverage areas and rapidly upgradable as new, more capable and economical versions of component technologies become available.”

DARPA has not provided a timeline for implementing the the Aerial Dragnet program, or suggested what cities it might first be implemented in.

This entry was posted in Darien Cavanaugh, Drones, English, Technology, Terrorism.

1 Response to Small, Cheap UAVs are Making the Pentagon Nervous, so DARPA is Stepping in to Help

  1. Dronepedia says:

    I do think maybe also the cheap UAV could bring some kind of hazardous chemical attack. Not just at the war zone, it might slip away into our country if the authority do not take any some kind of precaution or prevention. But i think the best solution is, fight fire with fire, i mean drone versus drone. To fight the illegal drones, some kind of alpha drones could surround the area and take down the illegal drone

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