Drones And Crime
By Terry Drinkard
New technologies always open up new ways to commit crimes. The gun, the car, the computer,
whatever. Anything new can be perverted from its intended use to some kind of criminal
undertaking. Ask the NRA. They tell me bricks, patio furniture, and screwdrivers kill people, too.
So, there you have it; no new regulations required.
The Big Bang
One major fear people have about drones, possibly the biggest fear (because Fox News), is some
terrorist putting some kind of weapon, brain altering chemical, or nuclear bomb on board a
hobbyist drone. A bit more difficult than you might think, really, and accidents with criminal use
of explosives tend to be…self correcting. Moreover, the current hobbyist drones are very limited
in both range and payload. No one is going to take out the Capitol with a hobbyist drone strike.
And a drone sized to bring a big enough payload to do significant damage is going to become a
far better target for various sensors.
This is not to imply that a drone cannot harm anyone. That’s not true either. I have seen video of
a drone with a bomb go off in a small room. It’s not pretty. On the other hand, a window screen
will keep it out. The usual terrorist target isn’t a small room, unfortunately. Typically, they seem
to go for public venues, crowds, in order to maximize the casualty count. A small drone with a
small bomb can still injure a lot of people, even kill some, but none of the drones I’ve examined
can even lift the typical suicide bomber’s vest. Granted, a custom drone could be built with a
custom explosive device installed. That level of technical ability is going to succeed at
something; however, it’s a pretty tiny part of the population that could do all that.
The government is already on top of the technical issues surrounding detection of drones used
for nefarious purposes. It’s technically very challenging and it looks to me like a wonderful
opportunity for data fusion from multiple sensors. The current state of the art says there is no
silver bullet solution for this problem, but an array of sensors may very well provide acceptable
coverage. In fact, such an integrated multi-sensor solution is available for purchase in Europe. A
single sensor (audio) system has been available for a couple of years now, though audio-based
sensors have been shown to lack reliability in an urban setting.
Drone versus airplane
The major issue among the aviation people of my own personal acquaintance is an large
commercial aircraft hitting a drone on approach. A big enough drone could be sucked into an
engine and do significant damage, or it could impact the radome or a leading edge device or one
of the stabilizers, maybe a landing gear door. It could happen. You may recall the media
coverage of drones in the sky over wildfires that kept the water bombers from dropping their
loads of fire retardant. Interestingly, the governor of California just vetoed a bill that would have
made that kind of activity a crime.
The smuggler’s drone
Across national boundaries, or in at least one case, across a prison wall, criminals are using
drones to deliver drugs to other criminals. Granted, it’s different from more traditional smuggling
techniques only by way of the platform, not the payload or the intent. Fortunately, most of this
kind of smuggling is done in relatively quiet areas where audio-based sensor systems perform
More interestingly, at least one major manufacturers, DJI, possibly the world’s largest
manufacturer of hobbyist drones is revising their onboard GPS software to not allow their stock
drones to fly across national borders (nor within Washington DC, for that matter). Does that
mean someone can modify or build a custom drone that will fly across borders and within the
DC city limits? Sure. But, then we are back to the numbers question of just how many people
have that level of expertise. Moreover, the government people responsible for the security of the
Capitol and the president aren’t going to rely just on the good intentions of the drone
manufacturer any more than they rely on the good intentions of the manufacturers of guns and
explosives. No, they will be installing multi-sensor drone detection systems. Granted, here in the
US, the Secret Service will probably have to train a prostitute to operate it, but other countries
may be able to use different techniques.
The Peeping Tom drone
A crime that is more intrusive and far more difficult to prosecute is someone stealing your
privacy with a camera-mounted drone. Moreover, theft of privacy isn’t even a criminal act in
many places. So, even if you can figure out who is operating the drone, he may not have
committed a criminal act. This is something that is going to have to be thrashed out in the legal
and legislative systems. Unfortunately, here in the US, some people use their guns to shoot down
the drone. This is still illegal. It’s destruction of property. The shooter gets arrested. Even in
Kentucky. I was surprised, too.
Other crimes enabled by drones
Lookouts, burglary scouts, RFID info thefts, and other things that simply haven’t occurred to me
because I’m not a criminal. The London Metropolitan Police will tell you that drones are already
being used to harass people and commit crimes. In fact, the drone seems to be the stalker’s best
friend at this point. And there may well not be a single thing that can legally be done about it. It’s
a thorny question, a balance of people’s right to privacy and other people’s right to a hobby. It’s
extremely difficult to discern a hobbyist from an intentional criminal at first glance.
What about drones against crime?
The police are already using drones to do things like secure a crime scene, perform surveillance
on a border, or a suspect. More actively, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police are testing an anti-drone
drone. They use a large (10’ x 7’) net to scoop up the offending drone in flight.
Regardless of the potentially positive police use of drones, the public here in the US opposes that
use quite vocally. The Seattle Police Department had a drone program. Public protests forced the
department to end the program and give back the equipment.
Of course, public protests rarely, if ever, impact policy decisions here in the United States. We
now have scientific proof of this, thanks to a Princeton University study. So, we can expect
continued and expanded use of drones in both law enforcement and crime. The question isn’t
whether we will see more use of drones, but rather will the future usage conform to any kind of
The International Association of Chiefs of Police published guidelines in 2012 that I fully expect
to be ignored here in the Land of the Free:
Police should obtain warrants to use drones where subjects have a reasonable expectation
Police should not retain images captured by drones unless they are relevant to a crime.
Police should give the public meaningful notice of drone use.
Use of drones by police should be subject to tracking and audits, with accountability for
Police should not use weaponized drones.
Have things really changed?
We will always have criminals with us. It’s part of the human condition. Criminals are just as
smart as law-abiding people, they just have an anti-social personality disorder, possibly due to
some brain structural issues (the research is ongoing). So, new technology is not a barrier to
crime. We regular law-abiding folks are just going to have to revisit our criminal legal system
and adapt it to crimes with drones just as we did for crimes with guns, cars, and computers. OK,
I was kidding about the part with guns. That’s never going to happen here.