A Drone Attempts to Disrupt the Power Grid. This Is Not the End
In July of last year, a DJI Mavic 2 drone approached the Pennsylvania power substation. Two 4-foot nylon ropes hang from its rotors, a thick copper wire connected to the ends using electrical tape. The device was stripped of any identifiable marks, as well as its onboard camera and memory card, in an apparent effort by its owner to avoid detection. Its likely purpose, according to a joint security bulletin released by the DHS, FBI, and National Counterterrorism Center, is to “disrupt operations by creating a short circuit.”
The drone crashed into the roof of a nearby building before it reached an obvious target, injuring a rotor in the process. Its operator has still not been found. And the incident, according to the bulletin, was first reported via ABC, contains the first known example of a modified, unmanned aircraft system used to “specifically target” U.S. energy infrastructure. It doesn’t seem like it’s the end anymore.
In response to a request for comment, the DHS spokesperson wrote that the agency “regularly shares information with federal, state, local, tribal, and territory officials to ensure the safety and security of all communities in the whole country. “
As for the potential for consumer drones to be destructive, experts have sounded the alarm for at least six years, saying that their wide availability and capabilities provide opportunities for bad actors. In 2018, a drone loaded with explosives made an appearance attempted assassination of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. ISIS and other terrorist groups used consumer-grade quadcopters for surveillance and offensive operations.
But the Pennsylvania incident represents an alarming rise in drone use in the state. The U.S. has had incidents in the past: A drone landed on the White House lawn in 2015, and the recent surge in drone sightings near airports and other critical areas has sent the FAA scrambling. To date, however, entries can be written as accidental. Not anymore.
“I’m surprised it’s been so long,” said Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy. “If you have a little bit of knowledge of how drones work, and you can access some crude explosives or just ram them into things, you can cause a lot of damage.”
The Pennsylvania drone operator appears to have tried a less brute-force approach. But their efforts to hide their identity may have contributed to their failure to connect to the intended target. By removing the camera, the joint bulletin says, they will have to rely on line-of-sight navigation, rather than capture the drone’s eye. While this effort has failed, analysts report it is clear that it cannot be an aberration; if anything, they expect to see drone activity “increase in the energy sector and other critical infrastructure facilities as the use of these systems in the United States continues to expand.”
That growing threat has not yet been addressed with proportional mitigation. While the FAA puts limits on where consumer drones can fly, security experts and drone manufacturers alike are urging it to do more. “Like manufacturers of pickup trucks or mobile phones, we have almost no ability to control what people do with their drones once they have them,” said DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg . “DJI has long supported giving authorities the legal capacity to take immediate action against drones that pose a clear threat, and we have long supported laws to punish some intentionally misuse of drones. “