“Drone technology has democratized”: An Interview with Bruno Oliveira Martins and Andrea Silkoset

On February 12 PRIO will host a launch event for the report: Counter-Drone Systems: Implications for Norway in an EU and NATO context. The report aims to comprehensively address opportunities and potential risks, associated with the implementation of counter-drone technology (C-UAS). Together with Arthur Holland Michel, PRIO researchers Bruno Oliveira Martins and Andrea Silkoset co-authored this report. We asked them to share their expertise on the evolving field of drones and C-UAS technology.

Photo: John via Flickr

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, have a history dating back to the mid-19th century. However, only within recent years the development and use of drone technology in the civilian and military domain has increased exponentially. Lackluster regulation of the use of commercial and military drones has led to a heated debate around the topic in recent times. One major issue, in addition to unanswered questions about the ethics of drones in warfare, has been the increased risk to private and public security that both commercial and military drones pose. Many experts agree that increased efforts in the development of counter-drone technology (C-UAS) and an updated legal framework are necessary to effectively reduce the potential threat of UAS technology.

Both civilian and military drones have the potential to significantly threaten national security. This was highlighted the recent attack on Saudi-Arabia’s oil production last year. On September 14, 2019, two major oil processing plants in Saudi-Arabia were hit by drone strikes impacting almost half the country’s output of crude oil.

While several Norwegian companies have been involved in the development of drone technology, regulations and measures to protect valuable assets, like offshore oil platforms, still lag behind. The risk of a drone attack against targets is currently being controversially discussed in Norway. President of Norwegian Red Cross Lt. Gen. Robert Mood has recently spoken out critically on the issue: “Norway is not (protected), both because it is hard, and because we have not secured our installations against these types of attacks. Our facilities are very vulnerable and are practically unprotected”. This sentiment echoes the findings of a report by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) from 2016 which claims that eight of the Norwegian installations were not properly protected against terror attacks.

On February 12 PRIO will host a launch event for the report: Counter-Drone Systems: Implications for Norway in an EU and NATO context. The report aims to comprehensively address opportunities and potential risks, associated with the implementation of counter-drone technology (C-UAS). Together with Arthur Holland Michel PRIO researchers Bruno Oliveira Martins and Andrea Silkoset co-authored this report. We asked them to share their expertise on the evolving field of drones and C-UAS technology. The interview was conducted by Indigo Trigg-Hauger of the PRIO communication department.

Indigo: In September Robert Mood said that Norway could not counter a drone attack, and that people will inevitably be able to attack oil platforms for example.

Bruno: It is incredible how much traction that statement had. Everyone tells us about that statement.

Indigo: Do you think it’s true?

Bruno: Yes!

Andrea: I don’t think that’s because the military has a lack of drone expertise as much as the complicated division of labor. In the civilian context, outside the state of war, the military technically is not legally allowed to use counter-drone measures. That responsibility lies with the police.

Indigo: Why?

Andrea: Because the police are operating within the legal realm of the principle of necessity and for the civilian context that responsibility does not lie with the military but with the police. The police may invoke the principle of necessity to counter drones in a situation that poses a threat to life or national security,  but they do not have the expertise or the capacity that the military does.

Bruno: Or the means.

Andrea: Right now, the military provides the police with the means to counter drone threats on an ad hoc basis in cases of state of necessity, but the military has not scaled up their counter-drone efforts so that they can also cover the capacity of the police. That is not sustainable in the long run. And in the case of the oil platforms, for example, things get more complicated. As we said before, in Norway the general responsibility for counter-drone efforts and risk evaluation lies with the police, the Armed Forces and the Norwegian National Security Authority (NSM), but offshore installations are subject to a different legal framework. For offshore installations and petroleum facilities, the responsibility for risk management is with the operators, which have a duty to establish and implement security zones around their facilities. The security zones should be of 500 meters, both horizontally and vertically. Within their responsibilities lies surveillance of these zones, and action – which may include physical measures – if the infringement of the security zone leads to serious danger to the security of the operation. But these facilities would not, in theory, have the legal authority to intercept drones, since this authority is currently only held by the police.

Indigo: I guess Robert Mood said this because of the attack in Saudi Arabia. Or at least that is what spurred it. But have there been other cases of drone attacks, not necessarily oil-related, that countries have not been able to deal with in the recent past?

Bruno: In conflict scenarios, there have been all sorts of drone attacks, not only by a growing number of states but also by non-state actors, including ISIS, Al-Shabab and the Houthis in Yemen, who alleged having done the attacked the oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. One year ago, there was also this attack on President Maduro in Venezuela. What has been happening in recent times is that drone technology has democratized, which means that many more people have access to it. In order to cause real damage, you do not really need a lot of sophisticated equipment. Sometimes the drones are sophisticated, like the ones used in the attack against Saudi Arabia. In other instances, they can be improvised devices made with off-the-shelf drones that any of us can buy at the shopping mall or at Amazon.

If you want to make a hyper masculinity argument here, you could say that, in drone technology development, the drive has always been to be stronger, more powerful, more lethal or to be the one that attacks,

Indigo: So, in the case of Norway what is the way forward? I assume that the police and military have plans for how to strike them down, like counter-drone capabilities, but is there a clear way forward for them right now with that division of labor you mentioned?

Andrea: The Bomb Squad, part of the Oslo Police District, has been given responsibility for technical counter-drone expertise, and delivered a report with recommendations to the National Police Directorate, Politidirektoratet. Also, the then-Minister of Justice Jøran Kallmyr’s  framework to allow counter drone measures. So, there are steps being taken to make the Norwegian system more fit for countering drones. I do not know whether there is enough political will to speed up the process, but I assume that attacks, like the one on the Saudi oil rigs, and statements by Robert Mood accelerate the political will to move the process along.

Bruno: I think that the majority of problems that Norway faces are problems that every country faces. The first one is that there is no single counter-drone system that is sufficiently capable of mitigating all possible drone threats. It just does not exist. Different systems fulfil different functions, but the drone threat is multi-faceted. You have small improvised devices, that can be operated by someone like us, all the way up to the spectrum of drones like suicidal drones that are basically missiles like the ones that attacked Saudi Arabia’s oil centres. Then there is the issue of price versus efficiency. Irrespective of whether or not the systems are efficient they are extremely expensive, and they are in an experimental phase. Sometimes they are advertised as being capable of doing certain features but when you try them, they do not work as advertised. The technology to counter drones lags behind the technology that allows drones to be threats.

If you want to make a hyper masculinity argument here, you could say that, in drone technology development, the drive has always been to be stronger, more powerful, more lethal or to be the one that attacks, and then you forget that there is the other side of the coin: at some point, the technology will be transferable and then you will have to defend yourself as well. This trend is a common feature in military technology development, and this case illustrates it very clearly. One year after the Gatwick disruption we still do not know who the person [responsible] was. It was a very basic, off the shelf drone, and it was able to create such a mess with huge financial implications and huge social disruptions. Even though no one died, or was close to dying, it created a mess and it was so easy to do it because there is not the awareness that you have to protect from the technology that you create.

Indigo: Does Norway budget for this? Because you said that it is very expensive, and you have to get different kinds of counter-drone systems. Does Norway have it in their budget or does it just state in this report of recommendations that they should have a budget for it? What is the situation for the future? Or is it unclear that they even have a plan to buy more counter drone technology?

Bruno: As Andrea was saying, the Oslo Police District has made recommendations about what systems to buy as a matter of priority. We are now in a transition phase where we will have to know whether or not these recommendations will be followed.

Indigo: So, what are the different kinds of counter-drone technologies?

Bruno: It’s good that you are interested in this. People have been interested in knowing how to use drones for their own advantage and suddenly they realize they have to protect themselves from them. So, when one thinks about counter-drone systems one needs to think about three different functions. One is detecting, i.e. detecting the presence of an alien drone. The second function is locating, so as to locate the pilot. The third function is to mitigate, i.e. to actually do something about the drone. For each of these different functions, there are different technologies.

For detection, the technologies can be radars, radio frequencies systems, acoustic systems, etc, as well as systems that combine these different technologies. There are Norwegian companies that develop some of these technologies. All of this is to detect the drone. Then there is something about the location of the pilot. And finally there is the mitigation phase, that deals with intercepting the drone. The most common technology is called jamming which means sending a lot of radio frequency signals that basically interfere with the electronic functions of the drone. Then there is something called spoofing which is a technology that in theory allows to take over the controls of the drone itself. But that is something that is not so common,  and it does not always work. Then you have lasers that basically destroy the components of the drone, destroying the internal communications system. You also have microwave lasers that burn the drone or parts of the drone. You have systems that throw nets on smaller drones.

But of course, all of these counter-drone technologies have a lot of problems. If it is a jamming system for example that interferes with the communication of the drone it can also interfere with other communications. If you are close to an airport, it can interfere with the airport communications. So, it is really very difficult. Statements like the one of Robert Mood are correct because, in many ways, it is so much easier to make an attack rather than to protect from that same attack.

Indigo: Since this is a Norway specific perspective that we are taking, do you think that the case in Norway is similar to other countries, that are probably also having the same issues with counter-drone technology?

Bruno: There is a growing awareness that there is a problem that requires more elaborate thinking and exchange of best practices, and both NATO and the EU have developed forums where these issues are discussed multilaterally. For example a new task force within NATO was created in February 2019 to put all NATO member states together to discuss the threats, to share experiences, to try to have a harmonization of standards, because sometimes a particular country has a type of technology that is not compatible with the technology that other allies in NATO also have. So, there is really a lot happening here. Our report points also to many initiatives taken by the EU to deal with the drone threat that are highly relevant to Norway. Despite not being a member of the EU, Norway is part of the Single European Sky agreement and a member of the European Aviation Safety Agency. Norway is impacted by decisions taken in Brussels but its proximity to EU gives Norway access to many possibilities, from co-funding of counter-drone technology development to participation in forums that allow the exchange of best practices.

Andrea: And also, the sort of legal conundrum is not specific to Norway either. In most countries, counter-drone technologies will conflict with some existing laws. A lot of the measures are, technically speaking, illegal to use, whether its concerning privacy law or messing up other lines of communication.

Bruno: Very few countries have specific counter-drone legislation, because the technology is fast evolving. This is really one of those cases where you can identify what people who do deal with science and technology studies and innovation studies call the law lag. Law is always behind the technology. There is always a gap between the technological state of the art and the regulation that will enable it to function well in society. But in this case, it has real safety and security implications.

Indigo: So basically, what I am hearing you say is, yes, Robert Mood is right, but this is not unique to Norway and it is not because Norway is actually de-prioritizing it. It is because it is very complicated.

Bruno: I think so. But if this rises in the priority list, then Norway will be more protected. However, there is also an important message to convey. I would say that in democratic societies there needs to be a reasonable, acceptable level of risk. You cannot protect against all possible threats. I think that in a way we need to learn how to live with it while doing everything that is reasonable to protect from the existing threats. There is crime in society, but you do not lock down society to prevent every single occurrence of crime. Crime occurs and then you do something about it and if a particular kind of crime rises up on the agenda then you do something specific about that. Things are fluid and zero risk does not exist. This applies to terrorism and this applies to other things. We should not live in the fiction that there is a magic formula somewhere out there that would make us one hundred per cent safe. That does not exist. It is about having a proportional response to the threat and in this case, a majority of countries suddenly found out that they are not doing enough and that something needs to happen.

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