Threat in the sky: How cheap drones are changing warfare

By Sara Goudarzi | November 6, 2023

The silhouette of a drone flying over the mountains line at sunsetCredit: 9parusnikov / Adobe

On October 7, in a surprise attack, Hamas penetrated Israel’s famous air defense system, the Iron Dome, using small, relatively inexpensive commercial drones as part of a larger assault that killed more than 1,400 people and sparked an ongoing conflict that has left thousands dead and injured. Among other actions, the drones disabled the surveillance and observation capabilities of Israel’s watchtowers along the Gaza border.

Although drones have been around for more than a century and featured prominently in combat for several years, until recently their high price tag meant only countries with hefty defense budgets like the United States and Israel could afford them. Large-scale repurposing of commercial drones was first used in the conflict that began after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This, experts believe, became a blueprint for Hamas militants in their attack on Israeli military infrastructure early last month.

To better understand the history and evolution of drones and their use in modern warfare, I spoke to Arthur Erickson, the CEO of Hylio, a commercial drone company, and Dominika Kunertova, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies of ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. They explained how the proliferation of cheap consumer-grade drones are altering the abilities of entities with smaller military budgets and changing the nature of conflict, as we know it.

Editor’s note: The resulting discussion has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Sara Goudarzi: President Obama’s use of drones in the late 2000s was controversial and sparked debates. But pilotless aircraft were nothing new. How have drones factored in wars over time?

Arthur Erickson: Drones were first created as early as the early 1900s when they would put basic radio transmitters on top of balloons. The first use of drones in warfare—in the ‘30s or ‘40s—was mostly intelligence gathering, such as flying over the enemy’s trenches using rudimentary camera and radio systems. For the past say 30 years, “modern” drones have been mostly the exclusive tools of very powerful advanced militaries. Like you mentioned, Obama conducted several drone strikes and killed a lot of people. But what’s different in the past five years is the explosion of consumer-grade, little multi rotor, drones that are only 10, 20, or 30 pounds and can be operated via cell phones. They’re easy and cheap to build. And it’s been a great leveler for the battlefields because now small insurgent groups that aren’t multitrillion dollar states have access to these drones, which they can use as makeshift guided missiles. They can launch attacks that are actually very difficult for even advanced missile targeting systems to counter because the Iron Dome, for example, is built to counter traditional missiles that go from point A to point B in an arc. These little multi rotors drones can travel in different directions. So, they’re really hard to intercept and predict. It’s given these small military groups an outsized ability to punch up above their weight class.

Dominika Kunertova: Drones are as old as the Air Force. If we take the clinical definition of some flying aerial craft without humans on board, we can talk about the incendiary balloons Austria flew over Venice in the 19th century. The true pilotless drones were first developed in the First World War, but never directly used in the battlefield until Israel’s 1980s war against Syria.

As Arthur mentioned drones were an important addition to armed forces in terms of intelligence gathering. There were remote radio-controlled drones containing primitive cameras in the 1950s, which were then turbocharged during the Vietnam, and then the Iran-Iraq, wars. So aerial photography was the drone’s job. What’s changed with this modern era is not just the drone technology that’s matured and become more reliable, but also the payload (or what it can carry in terms of sensors) has matured. The first real-time transmission of video arrived in the early 1990s with the Predator that was deployed in Bosnia, and the first drone strike in our modern understanding was during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001. I concur with Arthur that the drone market was dominated by Israel and the United States—big, capable states with a large industrial technological base. Now, the development, and introduction of, smartphones has also reduced the cost of the control devices and sensors. So, since the mid 2000s, hobbyist drones have changed how accessible the drone technology is, and the versatility of the platform itself.

Goudarzi: How are drones being used in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine?

Erickson: Again, you have the division: You have Russia and Ukraine at the highest level using sophisticated drones, which are more airplane style—larger aircraft that can fly for sometimes more than 10 to 20 hours conducting mostly surveillance gathering via high-resolution cameras with the ability to read a license plate from 30,000 feet up. They’re using that for high-level strategic planning. But on the ground, you’ve got guerilla style warfare with these little squads, or small groups, left to their own devices. That’s how this war is very bottom up and chaotic. So, a lot it is left to improvisation, especially on the Ukrainian side where they’re fighting a resistance battle. These squads on the ground are using consumer $1,000 drones and sticking rudimentary fixtures onto them to drop grenades and such and doing a fair amount of scouting as well. I would argue that the small consumer drones are more impactful right now. Because information is information. The differential between a satellite image for high-level strategic decisions and high-res drone footage isn’t so different anymore.

Kunertova: From my perspective, what makes the war in Ukraine different is when we contrast it with the image of a military drone that we had from the previous era. What’s different is how the technology evolved and is applied, and the type of the war. Those large drones were deployed in areas where the coalition forces basically had control of the airspace and could fly large aircraft for hours for reconnaissance missions and then shoot missiles directly from the drones. But the logic behind deploying them was to avoid deploying troops. So, the drones were the face of remote warfare, to protect the lives of soldiers.

But in the war in Ukraine, no one is controlling the airspace, and you have this influx of very cheap commercial drones that can basically do the job of delivering ammunition without depleting the axillary shells for instance. So, the driving logic is not to save lives but to reduce cost. The drone enables a cheaper delivery of explosives and of surveilling the battlespace. What is important is that those large drone platforms are operated from control stations sometimes thousands of kilometers from the actual war zone. But in case of Ukraine, the individual foot soldiers who have a better understanding what’s going on the ground can directly operate that small platform from a radius of two to 10 kilometers. So really drones are live streams of the battlefield. That’s how the use of drones in war zones changed since 2022.

Goudarzi: Dominika, I remember from your previous article in the Bulletin, you had mentioned that drones are also used for social media campaigns in Ukraine.

Kunertova: Yes, for psychological purposes, on the one hand for intimidation of the enemy. On the other hand, because you can have quick access to livestream or early photographic video documentation of the battlefield you could just upload it on the internet or social media. So, they’re the connectors in communication systems; that’s an important part of drone use right now. What really changed is that before when drones were used for reconnaissance missions, they collected the information, had to come back, and then the information was analyzed and turned into intel. Then the operation could continue but now everything is happening almost at the same time. There is no delay.

Goudarzi: How are drones being used in the current Israel-Hamas conflict?

Kunertova: From what we know about the initial assault is that Hamas used drones to go across the Israeli controlled borders. What is important to me is that they were part of a larger combined assault that included ground forces and rockets. But these drones were specifically used to attack the communication infrastructure on watchtowers, the gun turrets, and to disable the surveillance and observation part of the of the borders. The second aspect that is very important is that even though Hamas has been using drones for almost 10 years, it was the first time that they demonstrated the skill of navigating drones to drop grenades on attack. This is something that they must have seen in Ukraine. So, the two things that stood out to me were that drones were deployed as part of a larger assault to overpower Israeli defenses and drones were navigated to drop explosives on armored vehicles.

Erickson: I’ll just add that Israel is playing by different rules. They have their hands tied in the sense that they can’t just go in and start dropping predatory strike missiles on every building, because there would be too many casualties and that’s not what they’re trying to do. For Hamas, these small grenade drones are not even necessarily inflicting casualties but keeping the Israelis on their toes because it’s like a jab in a boxing match. A jab isn’t going to knock the opponent out, but it’s always there to knock them off balance. So, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] doesn’t know from where and when these small attacks come. Even if it’s just minor damage, or a handful of people get hurt, it’s still enough to just throw everything into chaos in terms of planning and trying to catch their breath. So, it’s being used as a constant bombardment and stimulation overload against the IDF.

Goudarzi: When was the first time Hamas used drones and how were they using them?

Kunertova: From what I know from the NGOs and watchdogs who have been monitoring this, the first time Hamas sent a drone to Israel was around 2014, and the first drone that carried explosives for them was in 2016. They were basically using them in the same in the same way as rockets.

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Goudarzi: Which side has more of what kind of drone?

Kunertova: The fact that Hamas hasn’t used that many drones so far to me would indicate that they don’t have that much to spare. Hezbollah has more drones—the US intelligence agencies estimate around 2,000. So, Hamas by logic has less than that.

Erickson: Logically, based on funding, Israel is going to have the big expensive drones. Hamas is going to use the small ones in Israel based on just the different tactics and goals that they have. Israel probably isn’t relying on the small consumer-grade drones that much because that’s not what they’re doing. They’re not trying to sow confusion and discord against an organized opponent. They’re probably using the smaller drones for scouting to clear a building or see around the corner, but that’s probably pretty much it from the Israeli side. What do you think Dominika, is there a worry on Hamas’s part about their drones being trackable? Because Hamas right now is fighting a guerrilla war where they’ve got these tunnel systems underneath the city. So maybe they’re worried that if they’re using these consumer DJI drones that China might be relaying to Israel information, such as their positions, or that Mossad or intelligence agencies are hacking them.

Kunertova: That’s interesting because I was thinking these small drones used by Hamas is a real challenge for Israel, especially in urban warfare where they can be hiding in buildings and suddenly attack from through windows or doors. But that’s a good point because all of them are emitting certain signals. So, then the issue becomes who is quicker.

Erickson: You can just launch it from a building and then quickly run and it doesn’t really matter if your position’s exposed. But they, I would guess, have some sort of protocol to not use them at home base or sensitive areas.

Kunertova: Or however, Iran will configure them.

Goudarzi:  How is each side obtaining their drones?

Kunertova: Israel is one of the first movers as we call them in the drone industry. They’ve been developing drones themselves since the 1980s, even earlier, and so I don’t think they will have any problems getting drones. What’s more important for them is to keep the Iron Dome functional by having enough projectiles to protect the territory and shoot down hostile drones. There are loitering munitions that Hamas is using with Iranian technology traces. But as I mentioned earlier, Hezbollah is the one that is more important in terms of drone technology. So, if Hezbollah is opening another front in the north, they will be the ones challenging Israeli control of the airspace there.

Erickson: Iran is allegedly providing Hamas with some of the higher tech drone technology, as well as missiles. But there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of consumer-grade DJI drones just floating around the world. The used market is huge. So, Hamas militants could very easily just have a front and go buy them in Egypt or elsewhere and sneak them over. There’s a lot of those coming in from various black markets, or just normal channels, into Israel and Gaza.

Goudarzi: How has the evolution of drones altered the conflict between these two groups over the years, if at all?

Erickson: Dominika brought up a good point that I hadn’t really thought of, but the social media element or the information war element to this is really important. What you see Hamas trying to do all over the news is muddy the water. Both sides are trying to engage in PR campaigns that make their side look better. But you have Hamas using camera drones to livestream footage and basically say, “look at this missile attack by Israel.” But even if it might not necessarily be true, you have these visceral images of flying over that famous hospital attack site, showing the carnage on TikTok or other platforms, which is creating this whole stir. That’s altering the dynamics besides just the conventional warfare aspect of the drones. The ability to transmit information is changing the important undercurrents of who’s backing who. Meaning, which third party countries are going to have to publicly support which side. That might be more influential overall than the actual ballistic element.

Kunertova: Exactly. Now, it’s easy to access information. So, who is controlling the strategic narrative, or the message of the whole war, is really important. Drones are a very easy way to be the first to spread information. Then it becomes very difficult to counter or explain.

Goudarzi: Are there specific examples of that throughout this conflict?

Erickson: The hospital: I saw a lot of drone footage of flying over the parking lot over the past few days on X (formerly Twitter). And it’s difficult for a normal person to know if what you’re seeing is from this conflict or not. It’s clearly some battlefield as being videoed by a drone, but it could be Ukraine for all I know. It’s a bombardment of this visceral footage that’s supposed to just get you not thinking about the logic of the imagery but provoke raw emotion.

Kunertova Also I saw videos of the Hamas drone with a camera filming its own attack on the watchtower. So, it’s also used for intimidation effect, as in “look what we are capable of doing with such low-tech platforms.”

Goudarzi:  You both touched on this a bit—such as how drones are leveling the playing field in some ways between the large military complexes and smaller groups—but how are drones changing the economics of war? How will they change the economics of conflicts as we move forward?

Erickson: The playing field has been thoroughly leveled. The Iron Dome was amazing and basically indestructible up until say, eight or 10 years ago. Now drones pose a real threat of penetrating the Iron Dome very regularly. There’s an outsized ability for the small groups to attack bigger foes and I think it’s going to come to a head. It’s untenable.

These drones are dangerous, cheap, and easy to deploy. So, there might be more and more controls over drones in the years to come following conflicts like this, where it’s going to be a lot harder for a normal person to just buy a camera drone. That’s because there’s just no good technological, or economic way to counter this thing. You’ve got these anti-drone systems, which can spoof GPS and land the drone, you’ve got microwaves that can fry the electronics. But even with those systems, if you send say 50 drones, it’s really hard to take them all down. So, I think we’re going to start to see an overall worldwide banning or a lot of regulating of these drones. It’s like the Wild West right now.

Kunertova: I don’t see the development in the same way as Arthur because there’s just too much interest in the drone market involving private actors that have commercial interest. So, from this perspective, I don’t think there will be a viable way to ban drones. Also, the militaries themselves are interested in using small drones. The war in Ukraine caused a surge in procurement of loitering munitions, small reconnaissance drones, for regular armed forces. And while in the past decades, there were many ethical and legal issues surrounding drones, now the public is engaging in dronations, where they are supporting, and contributing to, the Ukrainian forces to acquire them. So, I believe the image of these drones have changed. Also, regarding the economics of war: Not only is the drone itself getting cheaper and more accessible, but also training is almost nonexistent. Drones are easily replaceable, and they can be used to increase precision, which means there’s less waste of artillery shells that don’t strike target.

Erickson: I agree. I don’t think they can ban them, but you might see movements to try to do that. I don’t personally support that either. As a drone entrepreneur, I think the good outweighs the bad. But I wouldn’t be surprised if people try to impose controls. It’s like the classic gun control argument. There’s a lot of them out there and it’s going to be hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

Kunertova: But they can control the functions. Maybe that’s the way to go.

Goudarzi: Which brings me to my next question: With the proliferation of consumer-grade drones and compartments that are off the shelf, what would prevent manufacturers from altering the hardware or software that would compromise how a drone is used?

Erickson: You’re touching on a good point. You can make it a lot harder, which is going to have a macroscopic effect to reduce overall bad actors from using drones because you can stick things like geofencing into your programming. So, you could for example say, this DJI drone can’t be used anywhere within 500 miles of Gaza. There are ways around that. But it does require more knowledge and the ability to mess with the electronics and software on the drone itself. There’s a point where most of the drones on the market are going to have SIM card connectivity. So, a lot of the ones that just hit the market are going to be talking back to home base, like DJI or Hylio headquarters. And you could in real time monitor and see what a drone is being used for and turn it off. But of course, there’s ways around that.

Kunertova: Exactly. There are always some smarter actors who find a way around. This was the case of using DJI drones in Ukraine, that China would track the use of these devices and then sell the information to Russians. Then there were manuals on the internet showing how to overcome it, which was basically to not connect to the Chinese cloud, but instead use local data so there wouldn’t be any server communication.

Goudarzi: As you both mentioned, some of the earliest drones were surveillance drones. Now we have surveillance drones as well as killer drones. Which, in your opinion, is more dangerous or useful in battle?

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Erickson: I think you need both. Going back to the boxing analogy, you can’t win a boxing match with just your left hand. You need your left and right hands. So, I think they’re inextricable from one another personally.

Kunertova: I agree. An unarmed drone doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. Because if they’re collecting data, they’re constructing the targets that the missiles are going to hit.

Erickson: If I could lean one way, I’d say the information gathering drones are probably more important because they work in conjunction with traditional artillery and can right now do more damage. That might change in the future. If drones get to a point where they can carry significant payloads or we micronized a nuclear bomb, for example, that could be carried by a cheap drone to the middle of a city center. Then that would be more impactful, of course.

Goudarzi:  Can you further discuss how that might change in the future?

Erickson: I think smaller, but more deadly, payload packages are going to change the game. If you could just fly up a 30-pound drone with a little nuclear bomb on it into a subway station, it would be untold, unparalleled devastation. That would completely change the dynamics of everything. I hope we don’t get to that point because micronized nukes, which don’t really exist yet are hard to come by. But maybe in 100 years they’re not and maybe that’s a possibility.

Kunertova: How about chemical weapons? That’s a bit more accessible.

Erickson: Or taking out a power grid, right? You don’t even need necessarily a big bomb for that, but just one well-placed drone with a little explosive or just creating a short circuit in some transmission lines and knocking a country’s power off, or at least some regions, in combination with other attacks.

Kunertova: But you know, I always think that when people are musing about these super sophisticated swarms of drones that are communicating with each other to attack, the most efficient way doesn’t even have to be that sophisticated. If you have a large quantity of drones, you can overpower the defenses even if they’re based on jammers. If each attacking drones is operating on a different frequency, then you need more jammers to take those drones down. There are many possibilities if the actor knows what the weaknesses of its opponents are.

Goudarzi: What are some ethical issues surrounding drones in warfare that we’re seeing now and what are the some of the ones that we should be concerned about in the future?

Erickson: Bad actors. If someone hits up my company’s website, for example, and gives a fake name, but their location is in the Middle East, in Israel or Gaza, then we know that drone is probably not going to be used for what we advertise our drones for, which is agriculture. It is probably going to be used in the conflict somehow, intentionally, or unintentionally. Let’s assume a farmer buys a drone for farming but it gets co-opted by Hamas or some other militant group. There can’t be moral absolutism. If you accidentally sold a drone one time that got used for bad things that doesn’t make your whole company evil. But I think systems in place matter and there’s a responsibility for us to try to vet the customer base. Commercial drone companies should stay in the commercial sector, and should really try to avoid their drones being used for unintended military applications. It’s a different story if you’re a company that makes military drones. That’s your market. But I think the onus is on us, commercial operators, to try to limit the bad uses of drones for either side, and for violence in general. That’s not the mission of my company. So, I try to make sure that doesn’t happen with our products.

Kunertova: Do you have any end user guidelines for instance when you’re selling drones? Because it’s really difficult to control what the individual is going to do with the drone. It’s not like in the traditional defense markets when arms export is state controlled and there are clauses that you can use it in only for that purpose, and you need permission if you want to resell it and such things. So, it gets tricky, right?

Erickson: Super tricky. We have end user license agreements but of course, that doesn’t matter to Hamas. So, there’s only so much you can do. That’s why it is important that there is some level of vetting and that becomes an ethical issue because who are we to decide who can and can’t use our products. But you must try to use your best judgment. Obviously, we’re not going to be perfect, but you just try to keep them out of active conflict zones, to reduce the overall harm.

Kunertova: if I may add to this aspect of drone warfare: In the past with the counterterrorism operations, the use of drones was challenged on ethical and legal grounds because of the dubious use of force outside official war zones. Some critical voices were saying that they’re not drone strikes, but assassinations and the targets themselves under the so-called signature strikes. Basically, the individual’s identity was not known but was a target based on their behavioral patterns. So that was very controversial. I find that these days, it’s really about the technology itself and the increasing level of autonomy. It’s about how the human operator can make sure that the autonomous drone does what it’s intended to do, and that the human command doesn’t leave the crucial decision making unchecked with the machine. So, this is the main ethical debate in that respect.

Goudarzi:   Which brings me to my next question, which is about drone operators, who studies show can suffer from PTSD.  Can you touch on some of the trauma that’s experienced by people operating drones, those on the ground, and to add to that, people watching drone footage that is currently so readily available on social media platforms?

Erickson: Studies show that PTSD is based on one’s proximity to actual combat. If you stab someone, you’re going to have a huge dose of PTSD to put it in simple terms. If you’re one hundred yards back, the trauma is less; two hundred yads back it’s even less. So, in one regard, the drone operators are able to go in every day, clock in nine to five, and take out targets. They can get lulled into this sense of detachment where to them it feels like a video game essentially. And it’s set up intentionally; there’s that distance on purpose.

I’m sure the military psychologist had all that in mind. They probably did the studies and realized, if you gamified it, it’s going to have less of a mental effect. But there are studies that show when you accumulate all that experience and you go home and think about it, it almost makes it even worse in a sense because you feel you just played a video game, which dehumanized people and you killed them. So, it’s got a long tail to it. It’s designed in a way to minimize PTSD upfront, just so they keep the turnover relatively low for these positions, but it still hits.

And from personal experience: Just looking on X or Twitter I’ve gotten to a level of desensitization on seeing gruesome violence. It’s not that I seek it out, but I’m interested in geopolitical conflicts. So, my feed shows me that stuff and there’s a level of constant dread or anxiety that I have because every morning I could see someone basically being beheaded or something. I think that has an overall bad effect on society. There’s some level of anxiety and proximity to mortality that we didn’t have before this access to information that’s just elevating everyone’s cortisol. It’s having people make more fight or flight decisions in their everyday life, which is going to cascade to an overall more aggressive and paranoid society.

Kunertova: I agree I don’t like finding war in my Twitter/X feed with very visual images. I don’t think that’s the fault of the drone, but those who are constructing war propaganda, trying to get the audiences on their side. Unfortunately. I believe it’s part of the discussion of who is moderating the social media platforms. But as a user, it’s disturbing.

Just to add on the trauma caused by drones, for those who are on the ground, like civilians, and that goes across the different types of conflict—so Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ukraine, or Gaza now—the mere sound of the threat in the sky, makes people really anxious and scared. They can’t see it, but they know that it’s close and seek shelter. So, that’s something that I believe is featured prominently in the constant threat from the sky.

Goudarzi: What do you think we’re looking at in the future with regards to drone usage and warfare?

Erickson: Dominika brought up a good point: autonomy. You’ve got ChatGPT and the likes. So, you’re going to have drones making their own decisions and that’s already possible from what I’ve seen. It’s a great opportunity for someone from a military group to put a drone out there and let it go. It flies off, picks the closest building or structure, and explodes. It’s amplifying what we’re already seeing, which is the inability to deal with these guerrilla attacks. AI is a huge catalyst thrown into that, So, autonomy is going to be the next big conversation here.

Kunertova: I don’t like looking that far into the future, and because Ukraine told us that some very short-term developments on the lower end of innovation are changing the dynamics on the battlefield. So, I would expect to see more small aerial drones on the battlefield, but also more drone use in the combined operations requiring synchronization with other units and more proliferation of drones into other operational domains, especially naval warfare. So that to me, that’s going to be the new drone practice.


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