'Drone Swarm' Used by Criminals to Disrupt an FBI Hostage Rescue Operation

A hostage rescue operation spearheaded by the FBI was disrupted last year after agents were blindsided by a swarm of small drones controlled by criminals, who then used the unmanned aerial vehicles to keep a watchful eye over the raid.

The incident involved "high-speed low passes at the agents in the observation post to flush them," reported Defense One's Patrick Tucker, citing FBI chief Joe Mazel, head of the agency's operational technology law division, who was speaking at a conference this week. "We were then blind," Mazel told attendees.

The incident remains "law enforcement-sensitive," and its location was not confirmed. Defense One reported that it occurred "on the outskirts of a large U.S. city."

The FBI believes the suspects used backpacks to carry the drones to the area before agents arrived, and said they streamed video among members via YouTube. Mazel said the use of commercial drones to snoop on police takedown operations in the U.S. was becoming increasingly popular among organized crime.

The Federal Aviation Administration may soon enact rules that would make it easier to prosecute rogue drone operators, making it illegal to turn hobbyist drones into weapons while also forcing the drones to contain unique ID numbers that could be tied to an actual owner, said FAA administrator Angela Stubblefield.

A professional drone with 4K video flies in a drone cage during the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, on January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

But it's not just criminal gangs using unmanned aerial vehicles in swarms—it's governments, too. Last year, the head of the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office, William Roper, said that automated swarms of drones could soon be used in future combat zones, deployed to facilitate reconnaissance missions and scoop up intelligence.

"What used to be solo systems are going to have to be teams to be relevant in the near future, maybe even the far future," he said. "The technology is available today to make teams of systems higher performing than solo systems can be." In April, it emerged that swarms of amphibious drones were being used at sea.

Experts warn, however, that "weaponizable robots"—including drones—will be difficult to defend against. A major report on the subject in February, published in collaboration with academics and rights groups, suggested that both regulation and technical research have been "slow to catch up" with reality.

"While defenses against attacks via robots (especially aerial drones) are being developed, there are few obstacles at present to a moderately talented attacker taking advantage of the rapid proliferation of hardware, software and skills to cause large amounts of physical harm through the direct use of AI or the subversion of AI-enabled systems," it said. "Physical harm via human-piloted drones and land-based robots is already playing a major role in some conflicts," the paper added.

Cheap drones have already popped up in war zones and have been used by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). To combat this, the U.S. military developed a weapon that uses electromagnetic signals, known as the "DroneDefender." The gun reportedly works by jamming GPS signals and ISM radio frequencies.

A small drone helicopter operated by a photographers records singer Beyonce Knowles-Carter (not seen) as she rides the Cyclone rollercoaster while filming a music video on New York's Coney Island, on August 29, 2013. A hostage rescue operation by the FBI was disrupted last year after agents were blindsided by a swarm of small drones controlled by criminals. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri