Today marks perhaps the first time a small unmanned quadcopter has crossed the line from hobbyist or commercial to political activism or terrorism. Loaded with a “water bottle with small traces of cesium,” the 4-prop, 50-centimeter drone sat on the rooftop of the Japanese Prime Minister’s office.
I reached out to numerous subject matter experts who all agreed that this was “most likely a political statement relating to the return of nuclear power generation in Japanese later this week.” While a political activist against nuclear power is the most likely situation, this situation begs many questions as to how a radioactive isotope – once used in an assassination attempt against Juan Castro – could have come to be the payload of a small unmanned system. Jon Eisner, international media expert, who initially brought this story to my attention, asked the question most people are wondering: “Is this something any quadcopter could do? Is this an isolated incident, or the beginning to an entirely new threat to populations and officials?” What were the two smoke flares, attached to the drone for? Is it possible to defend against a small UAS incursion loaded with a dangerous payload?
For many years, the FAA, FBI, and other regulatory and law enforcement agencies have identified the ease of payload and the anonymity that drones offer as being a dangerous combination for this very type of application. It is very unlikely that the operator who landed this drone onto the roof of this government facility will be found without direct identification of where he took off.
While this radioactive material posed little to no danger to humans on the roof. Cesium, mimicking calcium in the way it enters and is processed by the body, can increase cancer rates and cause significantly increased health problems.
Clearly, this was not a terrorist event or attack; but it does allow us to learn the capability and applications of this two-faced coin that may be used moving forward. On the one side drones have tremendous upside – an ability to conduct missions that otherwise were expensive, dangerous, or beyond the application of manned aircraft all together. Today we saw its other face; an ability for an anonymous entity to impact society in a very dangerous way. The FAA and other regulators have the difficult task of minimizing anonymity while maintaining freedom for innovation. It is a tough balance, and one that we should all appreciate tremendously.
Lastly, and what I am most interested in, how will the public approach this event? Will this increase the fear that exists in the general public of unmanned, anonymous, drones or will it largely be ignored?