Rapid advances in drone technology could allow enemies such as terrorist group ISIS to target Britain and the West with incredible ease. David Hambling lifts the lid on exactly what drones are capable of.

THE word ‘drone’ might make you think of unmanned aircraft launching missiles at insurgents in Syria. Or perhaps it conjures up a very different image of hobbyists sending buzzing quadrotors into the air. These two might seem a world apart, but little drones are becoming as capable as their bigger brothers. This opens up new possibilities such as the threat of drone strikes on Britain.

As a science journalist, I have long been fascinated by the relationship between military and civil technology. Back in 2005 I wrote a book called Weapons Grade which showed that many of the technologies we take for granted – the internet, satellite navigation, digital cameras – all came from military roots. For years it had been accepted wisdom that the military were always ten years ahead in terms of electronics and the rest of us would only get new gadgets afterwards.

Then came the explosive growth of the smartphone industry in the late 2000’s. Companies like Apple and Samsung poured tens of billions into research and development of small electronic devices. High-definition video cameras, once so bulky you needed two hands, have shrunk to the size of a button. GPS navigation, previously a brick-sized device, is now just another microchip in your phone. Phones now have so much computing power that they can handle streaming video or the most demanding video game. These three – cameras, navigation and processing power – are the key elements in building a drone. A small drone is really just a smartphone with wings, and can be made as cheaply.

When the Predator drone first flew in 1995 it had to be big enough to carry the necessary sensors and other gear. These days smaller drones are just as effective. More than 90 per cent of military drones are hand-launched versions like the British Army’s Desert Hawk and the Raven used by US forces. The British also have an even smaller drone – the Black Hornet – a helicopter small enough to land in your palm weighing less than an ounce.

Small drones beam back video, giving a real-time view of where the opposition is. They can spot ambushes, locate snipers and guide artillery and airstrikes. They proved invaluable for reconnaissance in Iraq and Afghanistan and arming them was an obvious next step.

The Switchblade drone used by US Special Forces carries a grenade-sized warhead that can destroy a pickup truck or take out a group of insurgents. A video camera in its nose allows it to find and hit targets with extreme precision. If a close-up view shows that the intended target is in fact a civilian, the operator can order Switchblade to divert at the last second.

As smartphone technology makes these drones cheaper and more numerous, they will transform the battlefield. For foot soldiers, tactical drones may mean never seeing the enemy face-to-face so search-and-destroy missions can be carried out from behind cover miles away.

However, everybody has access to the same technology. ISIS has long taken an interest in drones, using commercial drones bought off the internet to shoot propaganda video and to use as battlefield scouts. Recently, they fielded attack drones for the first time – two Skywalker X8 hobby drones packed with explosives were flown against Kurdish forces near Kobane in Syria. The drones cost about a hundred pounds each.

Drones pose a real challenge for security. Drones can go anywhere; the barriers and walls that stop suicide bombers are useless. Anywhere is a target, whether it is Downing Street, an oil refinery or an airport runway.

Most small drones on the market only have a range of a few miles, but longer distances are possible. Solar-powered small drones are already flying for days on end and will soon be able to fly thousands of miles. ISIS could send a stream of these drones at Britain from bases in Syria as fast as they could build them. With no need for runways or launch sites, it would be impossible to trace the source of an attack, or to prevent it.

Stopping small drones is difficult because they are so hard to spot and virtually silent. They fly low and on a radar screen they are hard to distinguish from birds. They are too small for anti-aircraft missiles to lock onto and difficult to shoot down until they are very close.

A team at the US Navy tasked with defending aircraft carriers against drone attacks believes that the best defence is a protective drone swarm to intercept the attackers. If they are correct, then the future of warfare really will belong to small drones.

:: David Hambling’s new book ‘Swarm Troopers: How Drones Will Conquer the World’ is out now as a Kindle e-book, while the paperback will be available on Amazon from January 18.