Unlawful use of Civilian Drones in Sri Lanka: A security Concern? by Asiri Fernando

Historically, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) have predominantly been use by the Sri Lankan defence forces for military applications. Post-war Sri Lanka has seen a rapid proliferation of commercially available Drones and other unmanned recreational craft. Commercial Unmanned (UAS), commonly known as ‘drones’ have the potential to be a ‘gamechanger’ in many fields. Ranging from terrain mapping for disaster planning, agricultural crop management, remote sensing, fast courier services, scientific research, media coverage and medical applications; the list is endless. In recent times, Drones have been used by the Centre for Research and Development (CRD) attached to the Ministry of Defence for situational awareness, and to carry out damage assessments during the Salawa arms depot explosion[i]. The National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) used drones to aid in rescue efforts and to make damage assessments in the mountainous areas affected by landslides[ii]. Corporate entities like Hayleys Agriculture Holdings have begun to trial drones for agricultural applications[iii]. Drones can be a powerful tool for industry, social services and human security.  However, does the illicit use of drones pose a Security Concern?


The use of drones by organised criminal groups, especially drug trafficking organisations is a rising concern for law enforcement worldwide. In the United Kingdom, in 2015 33 incidents of Drones being flown over prisons were reported. According to Sam Gyimah, Prisons Minister (UK) drones are being used to smuggle mobile phones and drugs in to Prisons facilities[iv]. The rise of drone related incidents and crime has prompted the Ministry of Justice and the British Law Enforcement to set up a specialised unit to investigate, prevent and prosecute offenders who misuse them. In April 2015, a drone carrying 6 pounds (2.7Kg) of Methamphetamines crashed near the San Diego – Mexico border[v]. Law enforcement authorities in South America and the USA have expressed concerns about the rise of drone usage for transnational crime[vi]. According to Robert Bunker – a researcher at the US Army War College; South American narcotic trafficking organizations have been using drones since 2010. More than 150 incidents of drone use in drug smuggling near the US border with Mexico have been reported between 2012 and 2014. Sri Lanka’s struggle with drug abuse and narcotic smuggling is well documented. Recent detection of hundreds of Kilos of cocaine and other drugs at multiple locations and in position of curriers indicates that Sri Lanka may be rapidly becoming a transit hub for narcotic smuggling[vii]. The possibility of drones being used to smuggle narcotics in to correctional facilities within Sri Lanka or across Palk Strait should not be treated lightly. 

The use of Drones for acts of terrorism, within Sri Lanka is remote in the current context. Nevertheless, the use of commercially available drones by insurgents, terrorists in other parts of the world cannot be disregarded when conceptualising possible security threats. Sri Lanka is in a post – war transitional stage and cannot afford to be complacent of the emerging security concerns in peace time planning. Elsewhere, Imagery recently released by the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shown commercially available quad-copters and fixed wing UAS’s being used for reconnaissance, fire correction and to strike ground targets with small munitions[viii]. However, experts have pointed out that in battlefield conditions such tactics offer a degree of force multiplication but the impact of the use of drones in this case is more propaganda related[ix]. Otso Iho, a senior analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC) notes that, the imagery from drone facilitated attacks has propaganda value as extremist groups use such material to inspire radicalised individuals. Many terrorist group use propaganda videos shared on social media and online forums to radicalize impressionable youth, prior to requirement.  

Terrorist groups in other countries have used Drones previously. Hamas, Hezbollah and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are known examples. In 2004 Hezbollah began flying drones in to Israel, the drone reached the town of Western Galilee before it was shot down[x].  It must be noted that drone attacks by terrorists have largely being carried out in the Middle-Eastern region.  Experts have predicted that with technological advances and increased availability, ‘drone use’ by terrorists, insurgents and criminal elements is likely to increase[xi]. Further, experts such as Jez Littlewood of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University caution that eextremist use of a drone is "certainly not impossible and the authorities are not necessarily exaggerating things here,".’[xii]
Critical Infrastructure protection  

Drones can be used to disrupt or cause damage to critical infrastructure such as Powerplants, Petroleum Refineries, Power grids, Communications networks. In 2014, the French authorities raised concerns about drones breaching ‘restricted air space’ above several nuclear powerplants[xiii].  As a result, the French authorities introduced several measures to counter illegal drone intrusions over critical infrastructure and defence related sites. A 2017 document by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Critical Infrastructure security notes that drones can be a significant security threat to national security”…potential threats associated with UAS will continue to expand in nature and increase in volume in the coming years. Because of their physical and operational characteristics, UAS can often evade detection and create challenges for the critical infrastructure community.” [xiv] The document recommends implementation of security measures on site, enhanced vigilance and the enforcement of air traffic regulations as steps to reduce the risk posed by drones to Critical Infrastructure. At present, Sri Lanka is attempting to rebuild and expand its industries and commerce. Political and social stability, effective infrastructure support and consistency in policies are vital for Sri Lanka at this juncture. There has been a spate of trade union action, public disobedience and crippling protests on various issues. Sabotage of critical infrastructure should be a concern for authorities. While there may be no active terrorist groups in operation in Sri Lanka at present, the use of drones by saboteurs to disrupt critical infrastructure and critical services cannot be ruled out.          
Hazard to Civil aviation traffic

Drones have been cited as a growing hazard to civil air traffic. The last few years have seen a rise of incidents which have involved drone and civil aviation traffic. In 2014, the Federal Aviation Authority (United States) recorded over 25 occasions where air traffic control noted drones navigating hazardously near civilian airliners[xv].  The FAA like many other aviation regulatory bodies have introduced regulations and guidelines to ensure that drones do not become a safety hazard for air traffic. A drone collision with an air craft may have similar consequences as a bird strike, which can lead to fatal accidents. The Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) has also been quick to introduce regulations in the form of the Section 103, Civil Aviation Act No.14 of 2010.
Need for ‘Smart Regulation’, networking and countermeasures

The Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) has also been quick to introduce regulations in the form of the Section 103, Civil Aviation Act No.14 of 2010. The CAASL regulations, categories drones by weight in to four classes and make it mandatory for all owners, designers, manufactures, importers and vendors to register with the CAASL. Further, written permission by the CAASL and security clearance by the Ministry of Defence is made compulsory for the operation of drones for commercial purposes[xvi]. All drones weighing 1 Kilogram or more need registration and written prior approval by the CAASL to operate within Sri Lanka. Several ‘no fly zones’ have been mapped out. These ‘no fly zones’ include all airports, some energy infrastructure and areas where key defence and government facilities are located. Operational parameters for flight of drone have been clearly dictated. Regulations also dictate the type of payload that drones can use. Specialised cameras and other sensors that may pose a security or privacy concern need prior approval to use.  CAASL should be commended for its prompt action to regulate an emerging sector in the aviation industry.

Unfortunately, the regulations seem to create unnecessary ‘red tape’ and will likely discourage drone uses to follow the tedious processes that are in place to get registration and authorisation for use.  The fact that there is no central point to get the security and air traffic authorisation is a concern. The need to notify several different government organisations and local Police Stations several days in advance for the use of drones indicates that the inter-governmental regulatory – monitoring – enforcement mechanism does not function effectively. This lack of synergy between different governmental stakeholders is a cause for concern.  From a drone operator’s point of view, the time and effort needed to get all necessary permission may seem impractical.  Thus, the possibility of drone users resorting to unauthorised flight of drones is high and needs to be taken in to consideration in practical implementation of regulations.

A solution may be found in the regulatory frame adopted by the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authorities (CASA) for drone use[xvii].  CASA has a centralised system to which a user can connect via a Mobile Application to file a flight plan request. The request is then processed by the CASA air traffic controllers where authorisation issued or adjustments to the plan is notified to the client. The networked process alerts relevant defence, security and law enforcement agencies of the planned flight and the details of the drone operator and type of drone used. Such a networked system would enable greater situational awareness for air traffic control, better security screening and faster ‘paper less’ approval for the drone user.  Further, CASA has made it mandatory for a ‘drone pilot licence’ to be issued when using certain categories of drones. Such a practice may ensure the safe and professional use of drones and reduce risk, compliance issues and provide a professional standard to a budding industry.  The CAA need to move towards ‘Smart Regulation’ practices to effectively regulate drone use.  

Furthermore, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) and law enforcement agencies need to build capabilities and capacities to monitor and counter the illegal use of drones. Having drone regulation does not guarantee that drones will be used legitimately. As the SLAF and the Sri Lankan defence establishment looks to the future, the focus will shift from conventional military threats to new asymmetric threats which are dynamic. The current SLAF air defence system (ADS) is not equipped to detect, and if necessary intercept small drones.  The vulnerability of critical infrastructure to drone related threats needs to be taken seriously. Using, expensive surface to air missiles or anti-aircraft guns against a low cost, small target such as a drone is not cost effective nor safe in densely populated areas. The US Army has begun to test and deploy several Counter – UAS (counter drone) systems as an urgent operational requirement[xviii]. France has already equipped several units of the armed forces and security services with counter drone system for critical infrastructure security. Most of these systems use radio frequency (RF) jamming and GPS jamming to disrupt the operation of a drone, which results in either the drone automatically returning to its point of origin or crashing with the loss of control. Sri Lankan military has experience manufacturing RF jamming systems indigenously to counter radio controlled improvised explosive devices (RCIED) used by the LTTE terrorists[xix]. As such, those skills could be put to good use by the research and development units to design locally made counter drone systems for the SLAF and other security organisations to intercept drones that violate ‘no fly zones’ or to protect vital installations. Coordination with the Department of Police and other relevant organisations involved in facility protection services as they would likely be the first responders in an unlawful drone use instance. Greater awareness and networking regarding drone related risks and threats is the need of the hour amongst the security and law enforcement community.

Asiri Fernando is a Research Intern at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). This article does not reflect the stance of INSSSL or the Government of Sri Lanka.