Peter Singer, a strategist at New America’s Future of War project, said even if a lot of of these technologies make it to market in the next few years, that doesn’t mean they’ll be a threat.
“It requires the kind of technologies that are mostly prototype right now, so what you’re saying is, ‘Something that’s been prototype, is now successful,’ and second, ‘Some group like Boko Haram has gotten its hands on that technology,’” he said. “I have a tough time visualizing that timeline within five years.”
Some of the capabilities like Greased Lightning are just prototype right now, but others are already fielded commercially. If not in ocean-crossing form, at least in ways that show how the boundaries of small drones can expand beyond an immediate area — or a local battlefield.
Silent Falcon, a subsidiary of Bye Aeronautics founded seven years ago, has an eponymous solar-powered drone already in the market that can fly 200 kilometers out with a mobile ground station, or a hundred out and back without it.
“It’s electric-powered, but we supplement the electricity stored in the battery with power we generate from the solar panels on our wings,” said John Brown, Silent Falcon’s founder and CEO. “That’s what gives us the ability to stay up in the air a long time.”
It’s also portable. The whole system — two aircraft, launch equipment, ground station and all — fits in the back of a pickup truck, and then snaps together and launches in 30 minutes, according to Brown.
“We take off with a catapult, and land with a parachute, so anywhere you can get a pickup truck, you can utilize our system,” he said. “The portability is a big deal for when you’re doing things like pipeline monitoring or power line monitoring.”
Neither Silent Falcon nor Greased Lightning are quadcopter-cheap — a Silent Falcon system runs several hundred thousand dollars — but the prices on these technologies will come down as they become more widespread, Scassero said.
And as they do, that portability has implications for the battlefield too.
Five years out, maybe a few more, the technology could be there for transatlantic voyages, but that’s probably not the highest-priority threat when it comes to countering weaponized commercial drones. For one thing, that’s probably not where extremists groups are going to put their efforts, Singer said.
“I think we’re more likely to see examples copying what ISIS did in Iraq, using small drones to carry small munitions and/or collect intelligence, and maybe using that against different targets,” he said. “The risk is less the extreme ‘solar crossing oceans’ [drones] than someone taking one of these technologies and flying it into a civilian building in that country, maybe even a U.S. civilian building either commercial or an embassy or a base facility.”
Still, long-endurance commercial drones might allow extremist groups in North Africa to target Europe. And if anyone wanted to hit the U.S. with a weaponized commercial UAS, there are closer places to launch from than the western Sahel, Fredericks suggested. ISIS does have something of a foothold in the Western hemisphere, military leaders say.
“It totally is achievable to have, I’ll call it a Group 3-size UAS of a conventional airplane configuration that could cross an ocean, but then the question is why,” Fredericks said. “Why would you fly it all the way across an ocean when you could fly it from the Caribbean or from Mexico into this country?”
**Caroline Houck is a staff correspondent at Defense One. She previously was an Atlantic Media fellow.