So, what’s the most effective way to commit terrorism using remote-control quadcopter (or hex- or oct-) drones?
You can, of course, mount guns to quadcopters, although there are a host of reasons you really, really shouldn’t. But this doesn’t offer you much benefit; it’s much easier to just go someplace high up with a rifle.
No, we’re going straight to bombs. A basic medium-end quadcopter like the Phantom can lift and carry a few pounds. Grenades are less than a pound each. You want terror? Get a moderate-sized quadcopter, fly it about a hundred feet over a highway during rush hour, and put an automated rig to pull pins and release grenades straight down.
This assumes that you have ready access to grenades, of course. If you don’t, it might be better to just turn the drone itself into a bomb; stud it with nails and fill an internal space with commercially-available black powder, then wire that space to a control you’re not using to pilot the drone. Hit the button for that control, the drone blows up.
This is the kind of thing you’d want to use on a high-profile target. If you know that someone’s giving a speech, and will be in a particular 5-meter radius at a particular time, you can plan ahead, put your drone hovering a few hundred feet in the air ahead of time, then once you’ve got your confirmation that your target is where you expect him to be, send the drop signal, put your drone in free-fall, and blow it up when it gets within range. Since it will be falling, not flying, people won’t hear the drone of the rotors to make them look up, and even if your target does (or he’s being watched), tracking a fast-falling object (especially one you’ve spray-painted sky blue or cloud grey) is really hard.
But surely the government has clever technical solutions to drone-based terrorism on high-profile targets? Yeah, not so much. If they have them, they’re covering them up really, really well.
Really, though, America’s dealt with snipers and kamikaze suicide bombers before. To get some proper terror going on, I think we need to go back to WWII. That grenade idea wasn’t bad, but using timed fuses limits the height of our bombs. What we really want are impact-fused bombs like what were used in aerial bombardment, dropped from a great height, over populated areas. You can put fins and such on ’em, but the real answer is to just find really wide targeting areas. If you do it right, the drone will always be several seconds away before anyone looks up, and if you program the drones to operate independently, there’s no control signal to track. Heck, you could organize a multi-day terror bombing campaign without ever actually physically entering the city you’re bombing; if the city’s near a large body of water, you could have your drones dispose of themselves in it once they’ve dropped their payload, and make it really hard for anyone to find them and trace them back to you.
Scary, huh? Did anything here make you want to regulate or ban aerial drones? Well, that’s an understandable reaction, but also a pretty futile one. See, this whole plan of attack is stupidly impractical. Drones are great, but they’re not magic; they suffer electrical or mechanical failure, they’re sometimes built with bad parts, they sometimes get gusts of wind at just the wrong time, and they’re really noisy, and quite visible until they get some serious altitude.
The scary thing in these examples wasn’t the drones, it was the bombs. And there are dozens of potential bomb delivery systems that we interact with each day and don’t even think about. If we actually want to be safe, we can’t just look at something that’s new and foreign and declare it scary, and think that banning it will do anything to make us safe. We need to actually look at the mechanics of the threat we face. And we need to remember that the bad actors are looking at them too, and also looking at our reactions, and that overreacting in response to new, scary threats just means that when you build a million-dollar drone detection and interdiction system, your enemies instead attack you with dumbfire RPGs.