The Drone Survival Guide Explains How to Take Down Flying Robots

Ruben Pater, a designer from the Netherlands, recently came out with what he calls a "21st century bird-watching" guide—a poster and book explaining how to spot, hijack, hack, and dazzle different types of drones.

Unmanned US drone strikes killed hundreds of people people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia last year as part of the never-ending war on terror, a war that apparently necessitates the continuous bombing by the world's only superpower of malcontents in faraway countries. Western governments cite the assassinations of such big bad guys as Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, al Qaeda’s deputy leader, as success stories. While attacks like these are in theory weakening global Islamist terrorism, it’s been reported that less than 2 percent of drone strikes in Pakistan hit high-profile terrorist targets. Many more attacks have been known to kill children, civilians and suspected combatants.

With this hit-and-miss campaign in mind, Ruben Pater, a designer from the Netherlands, recently put together the Drone Survival Guide, which can be downloaded in 27 different languages and includes silhouettes of the most commonly used drones—from the Reaper to the Killer Bee—along with information on how to hijack, hack, and dazzle them.

“Many people are mystified and intrigued by drones," Ruben told me, "but don’t really know what the capabilities and weaknesses of such a technology are. Once we understand what a drone can do, we stop being afraid and instead come up with ways to protect ourselves.”

The Drone Survival Guide has two main sections: Hacking Drones and Hiding from Drones. “Spreading reflective pieces of glass or mirrored material on a roof will confuse the drone’s camera," it advises. “By broadcasting on different frequencies... the link between the drone pilot and the drone can be disconnected.” While Ruben insists that the Drone Survival Guide is more an art project aimed at educating people than a practical guide for taking down Predator drones, he was careful when constructing it for fear it could be used maliciously. “I was very deliberate in [only] collecting information that has been publicly available on news websites,” he said. “The [techniques] I chose for the guide are about dodging surveillance and tampering with their sensors—it's not about shooting them down.”

Which is good to know, as Ruben tells me he’s seen jihadists sharing the Drone Survival Guide on social media. It’s unlikely they will learn anything new from it though, as some of the instructions in it were taken directly from documents found inside an al Qaeda building in Mali, which detailed a lot more technical information than what is found in the Drone Survival Guide. I did mention to Ruben, however, that the guide does say that some of the techniques “can be used... to steer drones into self-destruction flight paths or even hijack them.”

“Good point,” he laughs. “The technique in question is GPS spoofing, which is a very difficult tactic you could use to hijack a drone. Some say the Iranian government used it to hijack the American drone they captured [in 2011], but it’s more likely nobody has ever been able to do it. That’s why I left it in: because it’s next to impossible. But the idea is very interesting—that by just fooling the drone's GPS system you could take control over it.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has predicted that there could be over 30,000 domestic drones operating in US airspace by 2020. By then, rather than being exotic weapons of war, drones will be mundane flying robots. Thus the Drone Survival Guide is marketed as an aide to “21st-century bird-watching,” though, yes, some of these “birds” can blow people to bits from 50,000 feet using laser-guided bombs.

Ruben told me that only after giving the Drone Survival Guide to a friend did he realize how dangerous the European-built Barracuda drone was. “[My friend] used to work at the company who makes brake systems for the Barracuda,” he said. “[He told me] it’s designed to do everything independently, from taking off, to striking targets—all without human intervention. You just tell it what to kill, and it will go out and do it for you. Pretty scary.” According to the company that makes the Barracuda drone, new missions can be uploaded to its system from the ground—giving instructions that it “immediately responded to” during a 2012 test flight.

One issue with the Drone Survival Guide is that the drone industry is advancing so rapidly that it makes Ruben's work instantly out of date. “The US defense giant Lockheed Martin recently announced a new model,” not listed in the book, Ruben said. “The SR-72 is a hypersonic drone that would be the fastest thing in the sky at six times the speed of sound.” On their website, Lockheed notes that “at this speed, the aircraft would be so fast, an adversary would have no time to react or hide.”

“Imagine losing control of a drone when flying at mach six,” Ruben said. “A robot so fast we cannot even catch it if it goes rogue. Great idea.” (This is pretty much the plot of 2005 action movie bomb Stealth.)

Ruben hopes his Drone Survival Guide will at least start a conversation. “The goal is to create awareness of what drones are capable of,” he said, “and hopefully spawn discussion about whether or not we should allow the use of drones for surveillance and military purposes. Most of us have governments that already use drones for these purposes, paid for by our tax money. We have a right to know what this technology is capable of so we can judge whether it is [used] correctly or not.”

Find the Drone Survival Guide here in full.

Follow Jake on Twitter: @Jake_Hanrahan