Multicopters in the Service of Terrorism

They are cheap, easy to operate, are not subject to any regulation or control and readily available in the civilian market. From innocent toys, multicopters have become tools in the hands of terrorist organizations, including ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah

Multicopters in the Service of Terrorism

Illustration: Bigstock

The field of unmanned systems, to which multicopters belong, is developing at a mind-boggling pace as part of the development of various technological activities including artificial intelligence, robotics and cyber.

Multicopters – a subcategory of rotary wing aircraft – are multirotor aircraft, mostly unmanned, and unlike standard helicopters, they are fitted with 3-8 rotors. These rotors are normally powered by electrical motors which provide the multicopters with the ability to move about relatively quietly and make operation easy and intuitive.

Owing to the extensive development and numerous technological improvements in the field of smartphones and the reduced costs of the various components, multicopters are dominating the airspace. In recent years, the costs of the primary elements of this platform category (including microprocessors and motors) have been reduced owing to technological developments that provide them with improved reliability, efficiency and energetic effectiveness. Another component whose cost has decreased owing to the smartphone revolution is the gyroscopic stabilizer, which keeps the multicopter stable while airborne. For example, a microelectronic sensor used in smartphones senses the attitude and heading of the multicopter and which way it turns. The lithium battery market, which gained momentum owing to the smartphone industry, also contributed to the decrease in costs.

Another significant component of the multicopter platform is the camera, which is based on a sensor originally developed for smartphones. Today, smartphones are fitted with cameras that produce high-resolution photographs at a relatively low cost. Additionally, the multicopter platform may be fitted with professional-grade DSLR cameras as well.

Two additional advantages of small multicopters are their simple operation and uncomplicated maintenance, which make it possible for a user to operate them after having received only basic training and to maintain them cheaply and easily. Owing to their technical advantages and flexible operation, multicopters may be used in the future for an almost infinite range of applications. It is also reasonable to assume that owing to their proven advantages, multicopters possessing capabilities that are not currently available will be developed in the future.Multicopters will be able to navigate through rooms, corridors and similar environments with no need for a pilot to operate the platform remotely. Subsequently, they will be able to fly more accurately along their route, and to execute sharper turns and more complex aerial maneuvers without losing speed.

The multicopter field has developed dramatically over the last two years in the civilian world and the same rate of development is likely to be maintained in the next decade. The multicopter category has received its main thrust from the extensive proliferation, mainly among operators of various multicopter toys in the civilian world. This platform category is used more and more intensively in the commercial sector but only certain derivatives are slowly penetrating the field of military applications – a field of activity expected to grow dramatically over the next decade.

Another advantage of multicopters, which will no doubt accelerate their proliferation, is their low cost. Even today, the market offers a range of simple but effective multicopters at an initial cost of less than US$ 100 per system. A highly sophisticated system will cost up to US$ 10,000. At such prices, almost anyone can afford a multicopter, be they a private party or – even more so – an organization or a state agency.

Multicopters are uniquely suited to the asymmetric warfare concept implemented by terrorist organizations, as they constitute a low-cost, simple resource that may be operated on a large scale. They do not require specialized manufacturing, they are not subject to regulation or control and are very common and readily available in the civilian world. Multicopters may be purchased in the civilian market without betraying the objectives of the purchase – even in the case of 'military' objectives. The threat may evolve into a surprise as the means are based on a well-known, simple and inexpensive civilian technology which is readily available and that may be used effectively for military purposes through an extensive range of missions.

Terrorist organizations do not conceal their motivation to utilize this technology. These organizations employ multicopters, even today, for intelligence gathering purposes. Syria is the country where the use of multicopters is at its most intensive, followed by Iraq, Libya and Yemen. ISIS currently uses multicopters in its combat operations in Iraq and Syria.

Hezbollah has utilized the air dimension in the past in several attempts to insert hang-gliders and UAVs, even deep into Israeli territory. Hamas had established an aerial unit that employed UAVs during Operation Protective Edge, although without much success. It is reasonable to assume that both Hamas and Hezbollah will use UAVs and multicopters, among other things, in their future confrontations with Israel, either in 'Kamikaze' configurations or in surveillance configurations for the purpose of acquiring targets for their rockets or mortars.

Even today, for many reasons – both security and safety related – efforts are under way to develop countermeasures against multicopters. The methods and means used are diversified, and שsome of them may be applied to military use. The present capabilities of civilian multicopters, although they are well known and documented, could emerge as a surprise on the present and future battlefield unless countermeasures are developed and effectively assimilated in the relevant places and by the relevant units.

Security and military organizations are currently hard at work developing and experimenting with systems and arrays for countering multicopters. With multicopter flights over sensitive sites becoming an increasingly frequent phenomenon worldwide and with hostile UAVs constituting a substantial threat, many parties are looking for ways to respond to this threat, whatever its size may be and at whatever height it may be flying.

Defensive Methodology

A defensive methodology developed in the USA consists of several stages and is known as "The Kill Chain" (the US project, which studies defensive methods against airborne platforms, is highly confidential. This on-going US project currently examines a number of options for addressing the challenge): firstly, the object should be identified while airborne. Subsequently, it should be tracked and verified as an enemy target, and eventually – the enemy platform should be intercepted. Identification may be accomplished by using Radar systems or combining Radar systems with various sensors and surveillance cameras or by using another identification method based on pinpointing the noise generated by the airborne platform during flight.

In order to fulfill the third stage of the "Kill Chain", several options have been examined, with the financial cost taken into consideration (accordingly, interception using a costly anti-aircraft missile is not an option). Another option being examined is the use of Lasers. Systems based on solid-state Laser, like the Nautilus system, had been developed in the past for use against missiles and rockets, and attempts are currently under way to use similar systems against mortar bombs.

Preliminary ideas for countering UAVs have led, in addition to Lasers, to hard-kill solutions such as the firing of massive amounts of ammunition toward the approaching threat. The bullets of the weapon system may be guided passively while travelling through the air, using Radar signals, so as to ensure that they hit their intended target.

Soft Kill is another approach for a counter-multicopter solution. Established defense industries are currently developing various capabilities against unmanned airborne platforms. The use of Lasers can be an effective solution, as Lasers, too, are becoming cheaper and more common in the market. These systems are becoming so compact that they may now be fitted even to a Jeep or a truck. The Boeing Corporation, the leader in the development of solid-state Laser weapons in the USA, developed an integrated interception system made up of a Laser gun, Stinger missiles and a standard gun. This compact interception system, designated Avenger, is fitted to a HUMVEE vehicle. The system by Boeing is marketed to military clients primarily.

In conclusion, the threat imposed by various multicopters is becoming tangible and preparations should be made to counter it, not just through the development and manufacturing of multicopter countermeasures, but also by having these systems assimilated by the relevant forces and by developing a suitable combat doctrine for operating against these platforms. 


The complete article can be found in issue 37 of Israel Defense magazine. To subscribe, click here.


You might be interested also