Isis use of hobby drones as weapons tests Chinese makers

With a wingspan of more than two metres, the X-8 commercial drone manufactured by China-based Skywalker Technologies is a favourite among hobbyists and aerial photography enthusiasts.

But the aircraft, which can be bought for just a few hundred dollars, is also perfect for military reconnaissance, artillery spotting and even aerial bombing, as soldiers fighting against Isis in Iraq and Syria have discovered.

The first X-8 in a conflict zone was spotted in 2015 by Kurdish forces near the Mosul Dam in Iraq, while in October 2016 a bomb-laden X-8 killed two Kurdish soldiers and injured two French commandos in the same area, according to Sahan Research, a UK-based think-tank.

China’s world-leading drone industry faces a burgeoning problem: its recreational aircraft, in addition to taking breathtaking clifftop selfies, are being used by terrorists to kill people.

As of the end of last year, 32 models from six countries had been identified in the Syria and Iraq conflict, according to research by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York state.

While most are military drones such as the US Predator and its Chinese copy the Caihong CH-4, the conflict has seen the first widespread use of hobby drones as weapons — and almost all were Chinese brands.

As a manufacturer, we are unable to control what people do with them similar to the manufacturers of pick-up trucks, cars or other items that have been weaponised in conflict zones

DJI spokesperson
Their introduction marks a “milestone in the widespread proliferation of aerial surveillance platforms among insurgent and terrorist groups”, the center said.

Isis revealed its weaponised drone capabilities in a January video. Since then, says Steve Stalinsky of Memri, a Middle East media think-tank, “we have been seeing almost daily Isis drone attacks, sometimes several times a day, against many different targets”.

Bombmaking workshops run by Isis have weaponised X-8s and other drones such as the Phantom, made by Shenzhen-based DJI, the world’s largest commercial dronemaker. Some hobby drones now boast formidable capabilities, with 7km ranges and payloads up to 40kg. 

The Kurdish government claims to have recorded at least two instances of Isis-controlled drones dropping hand grenades on its forces.

The founder of one Shenzhen-based armed drone manufacturer says that while military drones are strictly regulated, consumer drones are not — and unmanned aerial vehicles “can be retrofitted with one to two hand grenades very easily”. 

Chinese consumer drones figure prominently in the arsenals of terror groups for the same reasons they have grabbed market share all over the world, according to Robert Garbett, chairman of Drone Major, a UK-based consultancy: “They are cheap and readily available.”

Chinese dronemakers say there is nothing they can do to prevent their wares from being hijacked. DJI laments the use of its drones in warfare as “deplorable” and an “abuse of the technology”.

“As a manufacturer, we are unable to control what people do with them similar to the manufacturers of pick-up trucks, cars or other items that have been weaponised in conflict zones,” the company told the Financial Times.

Skywalker Technologies likewise said it did not “have the power to require customers make no modifications to our products”.

Other manufacturers appeared to have no idea their products were being used for purposes outside of recreation. 

“We have never heard of anything like this happening,” said Chen Minfang, a manager at Tensho, a Fujian-based toy aircraft and dronemaker. “We do not know anything about this. How would Isis be using our products? We only sell to Europe and North America. We sell toy planes. How could they arm toy planes?”

A Tensho Skyhunter drone was shot down by Syrian forces in 2014, according to the Bard College report. 

“It’s not clear how these drones are ending up in Isis’s hands,” said Dan Gettinger, director of the Bard College Center. although he noted that “they are pretty available from a lot of resellers on the internet”.

Mr Gettinger said that although the drones had not had a strategic impact on fighting, they had been used effectively as propaganda tools, for example by filming attacks. 

“They didn’t change the battle in Mosul,” he said. “But they have a larger tactical implication — they compel US military and others to invest in counter-drone systems and improve their capabilities to defend against drones.”

Some militaries and police forces have been developing defences against weaponised commercial drones, including the use of microwaves and netting, while Dutch forces have even begun taking down rogue drones with eagles.

Meanwhile, Chinese dronemakers have been in discussions about promoting global standards for the industry.

DJI has taken the lead among Chinese dronemakers since 2013 in installing geofencing — which uses GPS to prevent drones from working in certain parts of the globe. However, experts say the technology is easy to bypass.

Another security measure would be to require buyers to identify themselves and to require drones to carry UDIMs, SIM card-like devices that are a form of digital licence. Chinese dronemakers are actively promoting this technology through the International Standards Organisation, where a committee is developing a global registry for drone users, Mr Garbett says. 

“The Chinese are very much involved with this effort and very keen to ensure there are global standards that would ensure accountability of drone users,” he says. “That’s not to say that [such a system] couldn’t be tricked or hacked, but one would have to be very determined to do it.”