On the night of Aug. 4, something exploded in Caracas. Almost immediately, as social media snippets capturing the sound of the blast but not the object of detonation circled the web, the official line became this: Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela, had been targeted for assassination by a drone.
Venezuela’s minister of the Interior, Justice, and Peace identified the drones as DJI M600 models, and a video shared on social media after the incident by Maduro seems to confirm that it was some sort of hexarotor drone, designed for commercial use, that exploded. The explosion in the video takes place in the low sky, high enough above the crowds so that it appears no one was injured, but low enough that the explosion was visible. Witnesses reported a second drone crashing into a nearby building.
We are still at the early stages of understanding what, exactly, happened in Venezuela that night. Venezuela’s government arrested six individuals in connection with the attack, alleging that they flew two drones each laden with around 2 lbs. of plastic explosive in an assassination attempt. The military claimed that electronic weapons disabled one drone, while another flew off course. Maduro’s government has also claimed that the attack was support by outside influence, attributing the plot to US and Colombian backers, a claim the Secretary of State has pushed back against.
Setting aside the forensics, domestic Venezuelan situation, and geopolitical intrigue, observers are left with three big questions about assassination of heads of state by small drones: can it be done, was this the first such attempt, and what, if any, countermeasures exist?
Can a drone be an assassin?
If the last decade of the war on terror has taught the general public anything about drones, it’s that sophisticated plane-sized drones are absolutely a tool that can fire a missile at an individual. Plane-sized drones ― the Predators and Reapers and Eitans and CH-3s built by defense giants and used by uniformed militaries ― are all capable of targeted killing missions. (Also in the public consciousness are the “slaughterbots” of fiction, a theoretical swarming drone weapon that is autonomous and pinpoint deadly, and has several major hurdles to overcome before even starting resembling a realistic threat).
But what we saw in Venezuela is a smaller drone, built for the commercial market and primarily designed for photography. Can a drone like that carry out an assassination attempt?
The DJI Matrice 600 can carry a payload of up to 12 lbs., can fly at speeds of up to 40 mph, can navigate by GPS, and can receive transmissions from human controllers at least 3.5 miles away. The Matrice also retails at around $5,000, making it pricier than many commercial drones but still cheap in the grand scheme of things. Altogether, these features could suggest a course of attack against a public feature speaking outdoors: load the drone with a lot of explosives, set the GPS course for the venue, and have it fly on autopilot as quickly as possible towards the target. Would-be assassins in Venezuela would hardly be the first to adapt a commercial drone as a weapon. In Iraq, ISIS converted smaller, cheaper quadcopters into miniature bombers, releasing grenades onto unsuspecting targets below. ISIS built weapons to match the fight it was in: cheap tools that struck from new angles in the dense urban fighting of Mosul.
It’s not out of the question that would-be drone assassins would adopt a pricier drone for a can’t-fail mission, but that course of action also suggests operating from rooftops at least 2 miles from the target, and would either set the drone to fly an automatic course by GPS or would steer it for the 3 minutes it would take to reach the target, which is not a tremendous amount of time for anyone on the ground to react. It also seems somewhat unusual that with a full 12 lbs. of payload capacity, the drones only reportedly carried 2 pounds of explosive each.
Was this the first drone assassin?
Within a set of drones narrowed to exclude all those drones operated by professional uniformed militaries and flown in targeted killing missions, can the incident in Caracas claim the dubious distinction of being the first drone assassination attempt? The answer is a tentative “maybe.”
In 2015, Yasuo Yamamoto flew a drone equipped with flares, a radiation sticker, and a container of radioactive soil onto the rooftop of the residence of Japan’s Prime Minister. Yamamoto’s lawyers argued in court that his attempt was a political protest; he was sentenced to two years in prison for a premeditated act intended to interrupt official duties. An assassination this was not, though the means and access granted by the drone suggested a path for someone more committed to violence than protest.
While drones provide a low-cost way to move a payload through the sky, whether that payload is C4 or irradiated soil, there are profound limitations to consider. Drones are susceptible to high winds, and can suffer signal interference in urban or mountainous environments. While autopilots enable some waypoint navigation and control, a task like assassination may favor a more direct piloting control, which can be difficult without practice beforehand. Drones require remote controllers, leaving evidence of an attack in the hands of the attackers, even after the remote weapon has exploded. And while they can be overcome with some modifications, many major drones feature hard-coded limits on where they can fly, how high they can fly, and maximum speed, all designed to ensure lawful use of the craft.
What countermeasures exist?
The drone countermeasure market is booming. A survey by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard University published in April found 235 products sold to detect, mitigate, track, and stop drones, with entries being added to the list right up until publication. These technologies range from audio and visual sensors that can scan the sky for drones to interdiction machines, net-guns and lasers and electronic warfare jamming capabilities. Supporting this market in large part is military interest. The Pentagon requested $1.5 billion in its FY2019 budget to counter drones. Also driving the counter-drone market is the desire to get these tools into the hands of law enforcement and federal agencies, with legislation that would grant these counter-drone powers drawing public support from both the Department of Defense and the White House.
Counter-drone company DroneShield — which sells fixed-point drone detection and drone-jamming installations, as well as a drone-jamming rifle — shared news of the incident in Caracas as evidence of the danger to the public posed by the growing number of drones.
“What happened in Venezuela is a stark reminder of the power of drones as weapons. This isn’t the first time drones have been used for malicious purposes, and it won’t be the last,” said drone countermeasure company Dedrone in a statement. “Drones are here to stay, and technology can help identify where and when they fly, and how they can impact our safety. Counter-drone technology is critical to help provide warning of approaching, unauthorized drones, and identify or apprehend the pilot.”
Countries, law enforcement agencies, and militaries looking to defend themselves against clumsy, individually piloted uncrewed bombers can purchase a range of tools that might help in a pinch. Fixed defenses, bristling with sensors and complex algorithms hooked to software defined radios that override drone pilot instructions, are one option, but suffer the same weaknesses as all static defensive positions. Another big trend in the counter-drone world is the rifle-shaped antenna, a jamming machine with a range of usually around 3,000 feet that essentially points a cone of interference at a quadcopter to hold it in place or force it to automatically land or retreat. In the space of a few years, these counter-drone rifles have gone from theoretical demonstration to a tool National Guard units train to use while deployed in Afghanistan.
The available video evidence and narrative from Venezuela’s government suggests that some form of drone countermeasure was used. Drones caught in a jamming signal, or one that disrupts GPS connection, often wobble in mid-air, usually before crashing to the ground, landing or following default programming to return to a set home point. If attackers saw a drone jammed and had a separate radio signal to detonate the explosive, they might have blown up the drone in flight rather than risk it being recovered with explosive payload intact. It is certainly within the realm of possibility.
Our gimmick drone present, our gimmick drone future
Whatever happened in Venezuela, be it an international plot against Maduro, a clumsy plot by a new violent nonstate actor, or some other explanation in a country undergoing some domestic turmoil, the overall effect of the drone, its destruction and the tidy response is that of the gimmick drone.
Gimmick drones had a heyday in 2013-2015, as companies in unrelated industries filmed a commercial or performed a basic service in an awkward way with a cheap quadcopter, drawing on the insatiable media appetite for technology stories. (Here’s 25 stories about such drones.) In every case, the drone is the entry point to a sales pitch about something else, a prelude to an ad for sunblock or holiday specials at a casual restaurant. The drone was always part of the theater, a robotic pitchman, an unmanned MC. What mattered was the spectacle, the hook, to get people to listen to whatever was said afterwards.
A drone incident like the one in Venezuela has all the same contours of theater: a mass spectacle, a drone that turned out to be more fireworks than firearms, and a compelling narrative to sell afterwards. If a new terrorist group wanted to make a big entrance into a crowded field, the spectacle of the deed is one way to do that, where even failure serves as a way to highlight the group’s existence and ambition, if not their competence. And should the attempt be repeated, panic alone could be the desired end, an act of terror that primes a public for future acts of terror. For an embattled leader of a nation in crisis, surviving a high-tech assassination plot provides a great hook for a speech about triumph in the face of adversity, and the kind of crisis to mobilize supporters against opposition.
Whoever used the drone, and for what purpose, the net result was a potentially deadly spectacle. Less than a dawning of an age of drone assassinations, what we saw in Venezuela was the beginning of bloody gimmick drones.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.