Could a terrorist make a useful drone with off the shelf components?

Just curious. Many drones appear to be one step up from overgrown model airplanes. Could terrorists make a useful drone with bomb payload capacity using existing off the shelf components?

Well, Hezbollah and I think Hamas have tried sending model planes packed with explosives into Israel, to act as low-rent cruise missiles. That’s much less sophisticated than what you’re asking, though.

This guy builds propane powered pulse-jet engines. For a while, he was working on a project to build a DIY cruise missile, using commercial GPS equipment and microcontrollers, to raise awareness of the simplicity of doing so. He claims a prosecution by the NZ Inland Revenue was a politically motivated attack to prevent this work (which I doubt).

However, his point is just as valid - it is trivial to assemble the components of an autonomous GPS guided drone, and many universities have done so for research projects, with small payloads. It is likely that these concepts have been explored by terrorist groups and nation states. However, as always, the devil is in the details and development does cost money. The fact that there are no terrorist launched cruise missiles suggests that the cost/benefit analysis does not come out in their favour.


Using a full-sized aircraft is a bad idea, because it’s expensive and identifiable. That means you’re building a scale model. I’ve seen kits available for RC planes that could carry a payload of several pounds, but as bombs go, “several pounds” is not very large; the bombs that damaged the WTC in '93 and the Murrah federal building in 1995 were several thousand pounds each. For the amount of effort that a terrorist would exert to build an RC plane with a bomb payload and long-distance flight capability (i.e. controllable at several miles range), it’s easier and more devastating to just make a large car bomb and drive it to its destination.

The cost and difficulty of building an aircraft with a decent payload is pretty high. Then you would have to test it. It’s not difficult to build a computerised autopilot, but for the average hobbyist AFAIK it’s not an off the shelf component, neither are RC actuators for model aircraft with 15-foot wingspans. So you buy unusual components (expensive) then you have to test you plane with a dummy load(!) to see if it can even do straight and level flight. (And land it after the test).

Targetting is another problem. Even a decent size of explosives won’t do anything much more than terrorize if you are off by even 100 feet. After the first or second one, they’ll be watching for it, and looking for ways to track the components back to source, etc.

A bulky vest with velcro straps sounds a lot simpler. So does filling a trunk.

Depends on the definition of “useful”. Even a small payload of a chemical or biological agent could wreak havoc against any large outdoor gathering of people. The psychological effect would probably outweigh the practical effect. It would be very difficult to defend against such a threat, considering that on any given weekend there are hundreds of potential targets.

The small drones you are talking about are used for reconnaissance only. In fact the vast majority of drones used in the military have no capability of being armed. I think someone very smart could cobble together a recon drone. But it’s much more effective to use a bunch of guys with cell phones to do your recon for you.

FWIW, there was a report on the BBC World Service this morning that the Syrian forces loyal to Assad are using drones for recon to determine which buildings to shoot their mortars at. No word on whether these drones were COTS or homemade.

It’s one of those “only do it once” tricks. Are you expecting that the perp would get away with it? Or are they xpecting to do something and then spend the next 11 years waiting for the Seal Team or a drone to find them?

Remember, it took approximately an hour and a half (and an empty field in PA) before Osama’s new idea stopped working. If all it takes to protect a city is a couple of helicopters with lassos, or some marksmen, the threat will get old quickly.

It would be hard to be hidden, like the unabomber or the anthrax guy, if you have to buy real hardware, find a launch spot for a device with 10 or 15 foot wingspan, etc. Plus, assemble the whole deal without leaving any fingerprints on any of the parts…

The threat is overblown. Except for the White House and a few other choice targets, you can still load up a small plane in relative privacy and fly into whatever you want. We don’t protect against it because it’s very unlikely to happen. If it became more likely, there would be more controls - just like with commercial flight.

It would certainly be possible to make a useful recon drone, Google “FPV RC plane” for some pretty cool videos of RC hobbyists who fly their planes in first-person view using Go Pro cameras, radio transmitters, and LCD goggles. Lots of people fly them out to 5-10 miles. This type of rig can be put together with OTS components for less than $1,000, plus the cost of the plane.

As far as payload is concerned, there are some pretty big RC planes out there. I don’t know what sort of payload you could fit in a large RC plane, but it seems like you could fit 5 or 10 lbs of C4 on one of the linked planes pretty easily. Not enough to take down a building, but enough to ruin someone’s day pretty handily.

That said, a big, FPV capable RC plane is going to be pretty expensive, and while the components could be purchased OTS, you’d have to design and build the thing yourself. My guess is there are better ways to spend $10,000 if you’re trying to kill/terrorize as many people as possible.

There are plenty of good designs for planes out there it would just be a matter of making a few simple mods and a circuit to detonate the payload

Yes, terrorist can be a drone right off the shelf. In fact is’nt that exactly what they already are?

They are companies which supply civilian UAVs. Here is one company which does so. These are nowhere in the class of what a military might have (for an example take a look at the same companys military based products) but certainly I suppose they could be used for nefarious means.

As mentioned upthread, making a drone that could be remotely controlled from a long distance is hard, but a GPS guided slow speed cruise missle would be easy. Could make the airplane parts out of wood, use a cheap laptop or tablet with built in GPS, any 30-40hp engine could drive a propellor to carry around a 100-200 lb bomb.

How do you get the GPS to guide the aircraft?

by interfacing with radio control servos like mentioned upthread. Or use an off the shelf GPS guided autopilot, but that would cost more.

A model rocket, although inaccurate, could be used to deliver a dirty bomb. I suppose a large enough weather balloon and favorable wind currents could do the same thing too. I believe Japan did a similar thing thing with balloons in WWII, at least one of which reached a west coast state.