Attack of the Drones? A Mysterious Event in Venezuela Demands a Cautious Response

The first headlines were as dramatic as the accompanying video—an apparent drone attack on Nicholas Maduro, President of Venezuela, as he delivered an address in Caracas.  The video doesn’t show the drones, but captures Maduro’s wife looking up in alarm and startled soldiers scattering in fear.

Within hours, the government of Venezuela accused elements in Colombia and the United States of either sponsoring the attack or at least encouraging it. Both the United States and Colombia have denied involvement; the Venezuelan government has apparently arrested 6 people, and has even identified the drone types it believes were involved in the attack—DJI M600s, the company’s professional aerial photography platform.  Other reports suggest that the drones were armed with C4 plastic explosive.  According to the New York Times, a “little known group called the ‘National Movement of Soldiers in T-shirts’ claimed responsibility for Saturday's attack,” but there is apparently no evidence supporting this—and some reports have even questioned whether drones were involved at all, quoting firefighters saying it was a gas explosion in an apartment. 

Regardless of the details, the apparent attack seems likely to spur additional questions here in the United States about the dangers of drone-related terrorism, and the authority necessary to deal with “Counter UAS” operations.  Already, DHS Secretary Nielsen has tweeted that “[t]he danger from weaponized drones is real. It is time for Congress to give [Homeland Security] the authority to counter this rapidly evolving threat,” with a link to her prior op-ed on the subject.

Indeed, as we have discussed previously in our podcast, most Americans may be surprised by just how limited counter-drone authority actually is.  While the Department of Defense has been given the specific right to take action against drones that threaten designated facilities, there is (as of yet) no similar authority in the civilian federal security agencies (like DHS or DOJ). 

There were already a number of bills on Capitol Hill seeking to change that, as Secretary Nielsen outlined in her op-ed, and these efforts seem certain to get a boost from the concern raised by the alleged attack in Venezuela.  But while safety and security are critical, it is also important to keep things in perspective and to bear at least a few facts in mind:

  • Information is still emerging. Details of what happened in Venezuela are still evolving. It is still too early to say precisely who mounted this operation (if there was an operation at all); at least some in the US government have speculated that it may have been Maduro’s government itself, as a way to create alarm and justify additional repressive measures. In the past, we’ve seen many breathless reports of drone collisions with airliners, for example, that turned out to not involve drones at all. This may not be the same thing, but we should be wary of jumping to policy conclusions based on incomplete information.

  • A drone “attack” should not lead to drone panic. While this apparent drone attack would seem to validate the concerns and fears of security planners, at the end of the day the attack was not successful; perhaps one takeaway from this incident is not how easy it is to weaponize a drone, but rather how difficult. Indeed, if early reports here are accurate, the drones used in this attack were professional platforms, which retail for about $5,000 each. Couple that with the difficulty of sourcing the kind of military-grade explosive used here, and this does not provide a blueprint for an easy or cheap attack. For the price of two pro grade drones, one could buy perhaps a dozen assault rifles—and not need to worry about battery life or meteorological conditions.

  • Counter UAS strategies have their own dangers. The kinds of technologies used to “counter” UAS all bring with them inherent risks. “Kinetic” options, like guns or missiles, obviously have the potential to threaten other aircraft as well as civilians on the ground. Drone jammers present their own risks, disrupting communications and in some cases GPS signals, which could have collateral effects.

  • Policy needs to evolve—but that evolution is already underway. The apparent attack in Venezuela highlights the need to ensure that similar attacks will not succeed in the U.S., but policymakers have already been thinking about—and working toward—solving these problems. In addition to the counter UAS legislation discussed above to enable federal agencies to mitigate UAS threats, security stakeholders, the FAA, and Congress are focused on how law enforcement and security agencies can identify UAS in flight (Remote ID). The FAA considers this capability a necessary precondition to any future rulemakings permitting expanded UAS operations, such as flights over people or beyond visual line of sight.

  • Rapid deployment of Remote ID is critical. While Remote ID may have been viewed by some as an aspiration or a policy priority among many, this weekend’s attack underscores just how important the rapid and widespread adoption of Remote ID really is, so that authorized drones that do not pose a threat aren’t inadvertently targeted. That includes fixing Section 336 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act so that the FAA has broader authority over model aircraft (a subject on which there still is not consensus) and issuing rules as quickly as possible.

Bottom line: It’s possible—and even desirable—that this weekend’s events will encourage lawmakers to work even more quickly to expand counter UAS authority and facilitate the implementation of key security measures.  That is especially critical for Remote ID, which the security agencies have said is a sine qua non for expanded drone operations for almost two years now.  What policymakers should avoid is reactive lawmaking that could stifle the growth of this still-nascent industry by unnecessarily restricting beneficial UAS applications. 

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