The Ukrainian SBU now believes that the destruction of arms depot at Balakliya in March that did a billion dollars in damage was carried out by a small drone armed with a thermite grenade. That's an ROI (Return on Investment) of $500,000 for every $1 invested (not bad relative to earlier comparatives).
This is a spot on demonstration of what I wrote back in February of 2016. Here's a recap of what I wrote in that article:
From a mechanical perspective, consumer drones aren't that impressive:
- ~1-2 pound payload
- ~20 min flight time
- 20-40 miles per hour flight speed
However, these drones are smart and the smarter the drone is, the better it can mimic the performance of the much more expensive precision guided munition (PGM). For example:
- Drones can fly themselves. They can take-off, fly enroute, and land autonomously.
- Drones can precisely navigate a course based on the GPS waypoints you designate.
- Drones can now (a recent development) use digital cameras to find, track, and follow objects. Some can even land on objects they find based on a description of that object.
Even this basic capability is more than enough to turn a basic drone into an extremely dangerous first strike weapon against fragile/explosive targets. Here's a scenario that pits ten drones against a major airport:
- Ten drones would take off autonomously in 1 minute intervals.
- Each would follow a GPS flightpath to a preselected portion of an airport.
- Upon arrival, a digital camera would identify the nearest wing of an aircraft.
- The drone would land itself in the middle of that wing.
- A pound of thermite in the payload would ignite upon landing.
- The thermite would burn through the wing, igniting the fuel inside...
- Most of the airport and nearly all of the planes on the tarmac are destroyed.
Here are the takeaways:
- Even the simple robotic platforms of today can be extremely effective as weapons. At current rates of improvement in machine intelligence, the situation will get much more interesting very, very soon.
- It's possible to creatively trade inexpensive machine smarts for expensive mechanical performance.
- We need to figure this out before the bad guys do. However, truly figuring this out requires a deep insight into the dynamics driving this forward.
PS: The Balakliya follows five earlier attacks on warehouses and even this facility since December 2016 using the same technique. They are getting better.