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Inexpensive Weaponized Drones Will Pose Unique Domestic Threats

@Tony_Hallett, CEO, Unmanned Response

The April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was planned and executed by brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerian Tsarnaev. Their tactics illustrate how terrorists adapt to conditions and opportunities. They knew the area would be swept prior to the crowds arriving so they waited until the race had started then casually placed two backpack bombs along crowded sidewalks.

However, as with other “lone wolves” who were physically present at their crime scenes, the terrorism careers of the Tsarnaev brothers were short-lived.

Bombings masterminded by organized terrorist groups typically utilize suicide bombers or other intermediaries which will (1) increase the chance of accurate targeting and timing and (2) eliminate the need to facilitate an escape from the target site. In essence, it’s remote-control terrorism using suicide bombers to do the dirty work.

Leadership   —>   Intermediary   —>   Target

The 9/11 attack on the U.S. fits this equation. Lone wolf terrorists have also used intermediaries. Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) conducted 16 bombings over 18 years. He avoided identification by using an unsuspecting intermediary: the U.S. Postal Service.

Kaczynski   —>   Parcel Delivery (USPS)   —>   16 Targets

The use of intermediaries is the dominant feature of ‘in absentia’ crime or terrorism: Leadership is not linked directly to the crime scene. By serving both roles – leaders and intermediaries – the Tsarnaev brothers did not follow the equation.

Tsarnaev Brothers   —>   Target

It proved to be a deadly mistake. Surveillance cameras, personal cell phones, and extraordinary analytics (personnel and technology) quickly identified the suspects.

Kaczynski   —>   Intermediaries   —>   18 Years To Identify 

Tsarnaev Brothers  —>   No Intermediaries   —>   3 Days To Identify 

The Tsarnaevs’ actions suggest they did not want to get caught – they weren’t suicide bombers planning a one-way trip to Martyr Paradise. Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City) was also a “one-and-done” domestic terrorist who tried to avoid detection. Like the Tsarnaev brothers, he didn’t use intermediaries and was quickly identified and arrested.

Its conceivable that domestic terrorists will make tactical adjustments because of the back-end failures of lone wolves like McVeigh and the Tsarnaev brothers. They will continue to exploit our vulnerabilities but also may deploy a new type of intermediary. Consider:

  • In 2007, 43-year-old, al Qaeda trained Christopher Paul was arrested in Columbus, Ohio, for plotting a series of terrorist bombings. Paul had researched drones and possessed a 5-foot-long remote-control helicopter when arrested.
  • In 2011, 26-year-old Rezwan Ferdaus was arrested in Boston for plotting to fly three fixed-wing drones loaded with C-4 plastic explosives into targets in Washington, DC. The FBI’s affidavit provides intriguing details.
  • In early 2013, four terrorists were jailed in England for plotting to strap explosives to a remote-control car and drive it under the gate at a nearby military base.

Terrorist organizations frequently use inanimate intermediaries (weaponized cars, trucks, boats, and planes) that are delivered by human intermediaries. It is reasonable to assume they and their followers will adopt unmanned systems technologies, especially considering the low cost and easy acquisition. An quadcopter capable of carrying an improvised explosive device (IED) can be easily purchased online or in hobby stores for under one thousand dollars. There are technical challenges to weaponizing small drones but terrorists are clever craftsmen of destruction.

The use of unmanned intermediaries would dramatically complicate investigations and prolong the identification and apprehension of perpetrators. There will be little initial evidence to determine if an attack was caused by an idealogical, disgruntled, or delusional lone-wolf, or if it was transnational or even state sponsored terrorism. Additional features of concern include:

  • Unmanned systems afford the same advantages of a live intermediary – accuracy and timing.
  • A single operator can conduct multiple, simultaneous attacks.
  • A drone strike in the U.S. would create widespread public fear and be a major public relations victory among those hostile toward the U.S. military drone policies.

The unmanned systems threat isn’t only aerial. Any ground vehicle (cars, trucks, construction equipment, ATVs, etc.) can be retrofitted with remote-control technology. Will it be long before we see a self-driving car bomb? Boats and subsurface vehicles can also be converted. Should we prepare for an unmanned weaponized maritime attack on a bridge, pipeline, dam, or riverfront night club?

Weaponized drones present unique tactical challenges for first responders. Primary and secondary bombing targets can be declared “clear” (no device located), but not “safe” (since an IED can be remotely guided in at any time, just as the Tsarnaev hand delivered their bombs after the marathon started). Perimeter security such as fencing around sports stadiums is no longer a detriment and could actually amplify the destruction because of the chaos created by clogged exit routes.

There is a clear need, arguably an urgent need, for public safety professionals to prepare for the domestic threat posed by unmanned systems. Consider Timothy McVeigh’s chilling statement made shortly before his 2001 execution: “You can’t handle the truth, because the truth is, I blew up the Murrah Building, and isn’t it kind of scary that one man could wreak this kind of hell?”

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Other posts by Hallett on the Society of Police Futurists International blog include: Drones, Friends or FoesTen Reasons Why First Responders Aren’t Buying UAVsThe Proliferation of ‘In Absentia’ Crime; and Remote-Control Recruitment by Sexual Predators

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Ten Reasons Why First Responders Aren’t Buying UAVs

@Tony_Hallett, CEO, Unmanned Response

Spurred by military spending during the Second Gulf War, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market has experienced sensational growth. As the conflict subsided, manufacturers turned their attention to the domestic market. A March 2013 industry report concludes “… agriculture and public safety are the most promising markets” for UAVs, estimating a $13.6 billion economic impact and the creation of 70,000 new jobs in the first three years.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for the safe integration of UAVs into national airspace by September of 2015 as set forth in sections 334-336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The Act includes an exception that allows public safety agencies to immediately utilize UAVs if granted a two-year Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA.

UAVs are remarkable tools that can assist first responders with a wide range of tasks. Yet, the latest data from the FAA show only 25 out of more than 65,000 state and local police, fire, and EMS agencies have applied for a COA. Why aren’t first responders integrating UAVs into their operations? At least ten clear reasons emerge:

FAA REQUIREMENTS. First responders who want to start a UAV program must navigate a complex, confusing, expensive, time-consuming, frustrating process to even apply for FAA approval. (Just finding a comprehensive list of requirements is challenging.) After spending considerable time and money, the COA application might be denied. If approved, it’s only for a two-year period.

VOLATILE LEGISLATIVE ENVIRONMENT. The image of UAVs has been badly tainted in the media resulting in a contemptuous attack on the integrity of the law enforcement profession. Irresponsible overreaction by several lawmakers (and at least one city mayor) shows that political understanding and support are fragile. Why buy a UAV today when your state legislature might ban it next week?

LATE ADOPTERS. First responders are neither impulse buyers nor early adopters of technology as evidenced by the dependence on legacy systems. Consider this: If a child takes a cell phone picture of a creepy stalker, most 911 centers do not have the technology in place to receive the photo.

KNOWLEDGE & EXPERIENCE. Most first responders are not familiar with the capabilities, options, and features of unmanned systems. There does not appear to be any UAV orientation embedded in academic curriculum or public safety training centers. Media coverage provides little substance. The only in-person exposure for most first responders is at crowded exhibit booths during conferences. While these encounters spark a novelty interest, they do not adequately demonstrate the capabilities or value of UAVs.

STANDARDS. Most public safety agencies (especially fire departments) deploy resources that conform to applicable performance, licensure, or accreditation standards. Moreover, agencies will need to adjust existing protocol to accommodate UAVs. Until unmanned systems are fully integrated into external standards and internal policies and procedures, they won’t be widely integrated into first responder operations.

RELIABILITY. There are five characteristics of any new technology that concern first responders: (1) It is more complex to operate than promised; (2) it can be hacked or virus infected; (3) the company that sold it won’t be around within six months; (4) it will malfunction/break in unimaginable ways within seven months; and (5) it will be obsolete within eight months.

LIABILITY. Public safety agencies will not introduce an “unknown” factor into time-tested emergency response protocols. The UAV failure (crash) rate is dramatically higher than for manned aircraft, a fact not lost on public safety risk managers.

PERSONNEL. Small public safety agencies will likely rely on innovators from within the ranks to launch UAV programs. What happens if the innovator leaves the department? Many large agencies must navigate personnel issues such as union work rules, assignment bidding, and reassignment of manpower.

SUPPORT NETWORK. First responders who see the value of UAVs have limited opportunities to share ideas, information, and insight with other public safety professionals who are operating or interested in unmanned systems.

COST. Most first responders have no experience with UAVs and, therefore, no reference point for costs such as RFP preparation, acquisition, training, insurance, staffing, transporting, operations, maintenance, and certifications. Since first responders are unfamiliar with costs and benefits, they are unable to conduct a realistic cost-benefit analysis.

The implication for first responders is disheartening. UAVs could have an immediate and dramatic impact on public safety training, planning, responses, rescues, and investigations. Polls show overwhelming public support for the use of UAVs by first responders. Sadly, because of the reasons above, few communities in the United States will benefit from this marvelous technology in the foreseeable future.

The implication for the unmanned systems industry is alarming. Several market research reports have painted an optimistic multi-billion dollar picture for the years ahead. However, the fact that only 25 of the 65,000 potential (public safety) customers in the U.S. have applied for a COA is telling. Underperformance in the public safety market may be an omen of similar challenges that lie ahead in commercial markets.

The integration of UAVs into the public safety market is being closely watched by many stakeholders. So far, there’s not much to see.