Maduro’s assassination attempt shows how lethal drones can be
On Saturday two DJI M600 drones strapped with explosives came flying at Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro while he was making a public address in Caracas.
The attack was thwarted with radio jamming signals, which sent one drone careening into an apartment building where it exploded, scorching the outside. The other drone detonated over uniformed guardsmen, injuring seven.
The apparent attack plan was for the drones to be triggered in front of and over Maduro’s head while he was with his wife and other top Venezuelan leaders.
So far six "terrorists and hitmen" have been detained, according to the Venezuelan authorities, and the left-wing dictator has blamed a long list of enemies for working alongside his political opponents — from Colombian far-right rebels to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos himself. "I have no doubt," Maduro proclaimed.
Neighbouring Colombia denies any involvement.
Unsurprisingly, after the US imposed stricter trade sanctions due to Maduro’s "miraculous" election earlier in 2018, he also went on to include a couple of Americans from Miami in his list of suspects, and took aim at Donald Trump’s presidency for not keeping the alleged terrorists in check.
To be honest, I was not surprised at all. The drone research community has been expecting this
John Bolton, Trump’s security adviser, has demanded proof and said on Fox News on Sunday: "If the government of Venezuela has hard information that they want to present to us that would show a potential violation of US criminal law, we’ll take a serious look at it."
Although this is the first use of a drone in an attempted assassination of a head of state, it is not the first time a drone has been used as a form of political intimidation. In 2013 a Parrot AR mini drone crash-landed in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her re-election campaign.
The Internet Freedom Pirates party claimed responsibility for that attack, saying the stunt was intended to show the chancellor and her defence minister "what it was like to be suddenly observed by a drone", as a means to protest against the government’s stance towards the use of drones by the military. The stunt was also in part inspired by the scrapped Euro Hawk spy drone programme, which had cost more than €500m before it was binned after failing to gain certification to fly in European airspace.
Although Merkel seemed unfazed by the appearance of the 40cm orange and blue quadcopter, the incident in Dresden happened a month after an organisation in the Netherlands predicted in a paper published at the Unmanned Systems 2013 conference that terrorists and insurgents would seek to use do-it-yourself drones as weapons.
Researchers Klaas Jan de Kraker and Rob van de Wiel from the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) department of TNO Defense Research had specific concerns over "mini-UAVs", small easy-to-acquire remote-controlled drones that weigh less than 20kg.
The paper even postulated several potential attack scenarios, including one that after Saturday seems eerily familiar: "During a public speech by a VIP, the VIP is shielded from the audience by bulletproof glass. However, a terrorist deploys a mini UAV equipped with an explosive, which flies over the shielding glass. The explosive detonates close to the VIP, wounding him fatally."
"To be honest, I was just not surprised at all," Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow with European Council of Foreign Relations, told CBC on Monday. "I mean, the drone research community, everyone that works on drones, has very much been expecting that type of attack."
She explained that the attack itself was relatively easy to put in motion. The DJI M600 drone is a semi-professional photography drone that can carry up to 6kg of equipment, so strapping on the almost 1kg of plastic explosives was not difficult.
Considering that there is technology to create a hive-like mind synchronisation of the movement of up to thousands of drones — seen less menacingly at the Intel-partnered Absa logo reveal in SA, where 240 drones lit up the Johannesburg skyline on July 11 — this application of flight hardware becomes all the more sinister.
Thanks to our burgeoning local film industry, you can buy the same drone used in Venezuela for R95,399 from Orms in Cape Town. At that price it is relatively cheap in the way of A-grade political-level assassination tools. But it all depends on the level of damage you wish to inflict. The Syma X5UW Quadcopter Drone, available on Makro’s website for R1,589, can be controlled from a distance of up to 100m with an app on your phone, and would probably carry enough payload to get the job done.
A quick look on YouTube proves that you don’t need access to the dark web if you want an introduction to C-4 explosives. The "gamification" of military-grade hardware for recreational use does have ramifications — this may well be the beginning of an entirely different type of warfare.
• McKeown is a gadget and tech trend writer