Skip to content
​photo bydailyinvention from flickr

DIY Drones Will Be the Next Threat to Port Security

Both Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV) and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) have been identified by the Department of Homeland Security as a welcome layer of protection for ports and harbors. But insufficient attention has been paid to the potential for attacks by similar unmanned systems that could be built cheaply to easily penetrate port defenses. So says Dr. Mark Patterson, director of Autonomous Systems Laboratory at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Patterson focused on the threat of DIY maritime unmanned vehicles in a morning presentation at day two of the AUVSI 2011 Symposium at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. He says that sites like and robot competitions show that very sophisticated platforms can be built with limited resources.

“The bad robots are coming," said Patterson. "It’s the logical outgrowth of what you can buy off the shelf.” And it is made more likely by the rapid development of subsystems that can be used to build unmanned vehicles, he said.

Patterson, who began his career as an oceanic researcher, became interested in DIY unmanned vehicles for research applications. He built his first unmanned vehicle on his kitchen table 10 years ago. Unmanned vehicles make an attractive tool for asymmetric warfare for several reasons, including that terrorists could attack multiples targets inexpensively and without risking their own lives. Because of the low costs of parts, they could attack repeatedly, and all of the attacks don’t have to work, Patterson said. The chaos caused by a perceived threat would be enough to disrupt maritime operations even if the actual attack was not successful.

Patterson also noted that most harbor defenses focus on threats coming in from the ocean. USVs could be launched from small creeks or harbors close to their potential targets.

Patterson suggested the following countermeasures:Increased surveillance of potential practice sites. “To use a system like this you have to practice many times first,” he said. Those practice runs could be an opportunity to detect potential attackers.

 Stopping drone parts as they enter the country. Patterson admitted that this is probably difficult, however.

 Develop a risk prediction system that predicts minute-by-minute the likelihood of a threat based on tides, weather, harbor choke points, and conditions at launch points.

 And something Patterson called “Detection +”,  countermeasures that cause an explosive to detonate prematurely or cause USV systems to malfunction -- many of which already exist or are in development, he said.