Drone manufacturer updates software to prevent devices being flown in ISIL territory

'Geofencing' has been used to protect airports and sensitive locations around the world from consumer-grade versions of the devices. But this is thought to be the first time the method has been used to prevent flights in territory held by the extremists in Syria and Iraq, reports Rob Crilly

From next month the UAE will implement a list of technical requirements for the registration of drones used for recreational or commercial purposes. Achilleas Zavallis / AFP
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NEW YORK // The world’s largest manufacturer of commercial drones has issued a software update to prevent its devices being flown over swathes of Iraq and Syria where ISIL has been converting small unmanned aerial vehicles to drop bombs, according to American specialists who spotted the revision.

“Geofencing”, as it is known, has been used to protect airports and sensitive locations around the world from consumer-grade drones but this is thought to be the first time it has been used to prevent flights in ISIL-held territory.

The software update was issued following the discovery of a Phantom quadcopter – made by the Chinese drones manufacturer DJI and available from online retailers for a little over US$800 (Dh2,938) – which had been modified by ISIL to drop improvised explosive devices in Mosul.

The DJI-issued revision was identified by Kevin Finisterre, senior software engineer at Department 13 which develops counter-drone technology.

He said the update appeared to coincide with an advance by US-backed Iraqi government forces and allied militias on Western Mosul, suggesting it was designed to prevent ISIL flying weaponized drones.

“Most news outlets on February 24 were reporting there’s a major offensive in Mosul,” he said. “If you look at the timestamps on the [update] those Iraq and Syrian no-fly zones were added from the 24th to the 27th so it seems logical.”

Two years after ISIL began deploying surveillance drones, the group is using commercially available models in increasingly sophisticated ways. These models have been used to target weapons such as mortars and artillery, conduct damage surveys and deliver bombs.

Earlier this year ISIL announced the formation of the Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen unit with a fleet of unmanned vehicles to drop Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

Last week, monitors reported that ISIL was using weaponized commercial drones in northern Syria as it tried to defend the town of Tabqa against the advancing Syrian Democratic Forces rebel alliance.

And Iraqi Counterrorism Service troops counted a peak of 52 drone sorties in a day around Mosul in February.

Manufacturers have been under pressure to do more to prevent their products being used for malicious purposes but have been reluctant to get sucked into an arms race, knowing that software can be readily hacked.

DJI has frequently been singled out. Some estimates suggest it controls as much as 85 per cent of the global market.

The US spokesman for the company, which is headquartered in Shenzhen, China, said he could not comment on the conflict in the Middle East other than to condemn any abuse of the company’s technology.

“DJI makes products purely for peaceful purposes, which is how the overwhelming majority of pilots use them, and we deplore any use of our drones to bring harm to anyone,” he said.

“Our geofencing system is designed to advise pilots of airspace restrictions, and was never intended to enforce laws or thwart people who want to misuse our products.”

A recent report by Conflict Armament Research, which tracks weapons in war, detailed how ISIL was modifying commercially available drones with simple DIY components to carry bombs fashioned from grenades.

Damien Spleeters, a field investigator, said ISIL was using the battle for Mosul to test its latest designs from a sophisticated production line.

One example of a DJI Phantom, recovered in January, was fitted with a tube from a bathroom caulking gun, he said, where the IED would be held tight during flight.

“Then there is a servomotor fixed to the leg of the drone and that has a metallic rod that goes through a loop on the base of the IED,” he said.

“When the operator actuates the servomotor, it moves the rod, releasing the IED.”

The ISIL drones put responsible manufacturers in a difficult position. “Geofencing” also blocks drones used by aid groups, media organisations and friendly forces. At the same time, unrestricted models are still available from less scrupulous makers and hackers can always find a way around software updates.

A recent survey, conducted by Dan Gettinger of the Centre for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York, found 32 different systems operating in Iraq and Syria as well as a further six unidentified models.

He said it would be difficult to completely eradicate ISIL drones from the battlefield.

“We’ve seen a lot of experimentation with different types of drones in Syria and Iraq,” he said.

“I don’t think that experimentation is going to end with this geofencing measure, because of this multiyear experience with all these different types of drones.”

The US-led coalition fighting ISIL says it is taking steps to reduce the danger.

“The coalition takes this threat seriously and has implemented increased force protection measures and improved UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) counter-measures to protect coalition forces and our partners on the ground,” said a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.

He added, however, that while such drones offered a tactical threat, they would not have a strategic effect on the battlefield.

“They are not a game changer and will have no effect on the outcome of the battle of Mosul,” he said.