John Villasenor at Brookings released a white paper this week, “Cyber-Physical Attacks and Drone Strikes: The Next Homeland Security Threat,” that is well-worth the time to digest. Villasenor recounts a recent history of the use of unmanned aerial platforms (no mention of any other types of robots as weapon systems) and the trend toward miniaturization of these “flying – and sometimes armed – computers.”
While the thrust of the Brookings paper was to highlight the potential ability of U.S. adversaries to use UAVs to launch a cyber-physical attack – and as such the paper ought to be a wake-up call to policy makers and homeland security officials – I could not help but think of how such unmanned vehicles might be used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes along the border. While CBP pursues a “one size fits all” strategy of using Predator UAVs as their sole unmanned platform, the rest of the world apparently sees the advantages of using a mix of significantly smaller unmanned aircraft for surveillance purposes.
Predator UAVs and their military counter-part are ideally suited for carrying heavy items, including precision-strike missiles, because the weight of the payload needs a larger platform to get it off the ground and keep it aloft. But as Brookings points out, sophisticated surveillance technology does not need a “Gulliver-sized” form factor to detect “Lilliputian-sized” objects on the ground. And when I last checked, the United States has no intention of launching missiles into our Northern or Southern neighbors’ territory.
From Mosquitoes to nano-Hummingbirds to other catchy names, unmanned drones are changing the way that wars and the prevention of them are conducted. Too bad that DHS is spending so little to detect the threats caused by low-flying aircraft (like the mini-drones mentioned in the Brookings paper) while, in my opinion, it wastes millions of dollars buying and operating more Predators.
I hope Villasenor’s work gets wide-spread attention and further energizes the debate on the use of unmanned systems.