The rise of AI-powered killer robot drones


Remember former Google CEO Eric Schmidt? He now makes flying AI robots that target and kill autonomously. (Really!)

His robots are in high demand for one simple reason: GPS jamming.

I’ll explain more about Schmidt’s robots below. But first, it’s time to catch up on the rising trend of GPS, cell phone and other signal jamming, which is triggering a global arms race between jamming and anti-jamming technologies.

The FCC crackdown of 2012

All jamming devices in the United States were banned 90 years ago — long before jamming devices even existed. The Communications Act of 1934 explicitly prohibited deliberate interference with radio communications.

Both cell phone and GPS jamming works by “flooding the zone” with white noise in the same frequencies as phone and GPS receivers, basically a denial-of-service attack on the associated range of radio frequencies. But it was the rise in e-commerce that fueled an industry of online jammer sales. In 2012, a bus passenger in Philadelphia wanted some peace and quiet, so he used a cell phone jammer to jam all the phones on the bus. Later that year, the FCC took legal action against 20 online retailers in 12 states for illegally selling jamming devices. 

Despite the crackdown, the illegal use of jammers continued. In 2013, RNM Manufacturing in Houston, TX  used a jammer to block employees from using their phones at work and was fined $29,250. Not to be out-done by Houston, a Dallas company in 2022 called Ravi’s Import Warehouse also tried to jam employee calls and was also fined by the FCC, this time for $22,000.

Jammers are still available on the black market, which have led to calls for global enforcement of jamming bans. Signal jamming of every kind is illegal in the United States, which is why it might seem surprising to Americans to learn that thousands of commercial aircraft in Europe are put at risk every day by GPS jammers. 

The European jamming crisis

The current dramatic rise in GPS jamming is almost certainly done by the Russian military to protect its bases and assets from Ukrainian drone attacks. More than 46,000 aircraft GPS jamming incidents have been reported over the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean since August 2021. New incidents are reported every day. 

(The website GPSJAM tracks and displays GPS interference in Europe and the Middle East.)

Major airlines like Ryanair (more than 2,300 flights), Wizz Air (nearly 1,400 flights), British Airways (82 flights) and easyJet (4 flights) have been affected by jamming. The GPS jamming has forced some flight cancellations or diversions. Finnair had to temporarily suspend flights to Tartu, Estonia. And a British Royal Air Force plane carrying the UK defense secretary experienced GPS jamming near Kaliningrad in March 2023.

The Ukraine/Russia conflict is a proving ground and laboratory for all kinds of both military and malicious cyberattack technologies. 

Specifically, the conflict is the world’s first large-scale drone war. The Ukraine side alone reportedly loses more than 10,000 drones a month, and the country itself has produced more than 1 million drones since the start of the war; it’s also received an unknown number from abroad, including familiar consumer and business drones like the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise, Autel EVO II Pro, the Bayraktar TB2 and others. 

Both sides are using huge numbers of drones for surveillance, reconnaissance, espionage, explosives delivery, hacking, malware delivery, counter-hacking and signal jamming. And while the Ukraine side leads in the creative use of drones, the Russian side is more advanced in drone GPS and signal jamming innovations.

Nearly every effective drone and counter-drone action pioneered and tested in the Ukraine-Russia conflict will almost certainly be used against business and other targets in the years to come. Based on what’s happening in the war, cybersecurity professionals should be aware of the three main areas drones will be increasingly used by malicious actors: 

1. Bypassing physical security: Drones can fly over fences, down air ducts and land on roofs to observe security protocols and plan physical attacks using high-quality cameras.

2. Network sniffing and spoofing: Drones equipped with modifiable computers can mimic Wi-Fi networks to steal sensitive information.

3. Denial-of-Service attacks: Drones can perform de-authentication attacks and jam communications.

Another easy prediction is that businesses will be challenged by malicious drone use, given the illegality of jamming in the US.

The military industrial complex gets to work

As Western GPS-guided munitions are increasingly defeated by Russian jamming, the Pentagon is scrambling to innovate in countering the jamming threat. (This is somewhat ironic, given that the GPS system, the mobile cellular system and, in fact, the internet itself were all created by or founded upon Pentagon research programs.) 

One approach is to blow up the jammers. The US Air Force awarded a contract valued at around $23.5 million to Scientific Applications and Research Associates to enable guided bombs to home in on — and destroy — jamming equipment. 

The Air Force Research Lab is conducting research on using regular smartphones for real-time detection of jamming and spoofing. And while blowing up jamming devices is a short-term, immediate solution, the longer-term solution is to enable drones to work autonomously, without needing to phone home or be controlled remotely.

One fascinating project is the Pentagon’s Rapid Experimental Missionized Autonomy (REMA) program. The project is developing plug-ins or adaptors that can be fitted to ordinary commercial drones that would enable them to carry out their missions autonomously after being jammed. Contracts for the drone-autonomy adapter interface have been already awarded to companies like Anduril and RTX for the hardware and Leidos, Northrop Grumman and SoarTech for the software. 

Eric Schmidt’s flying killer robots

White Stork is a secretive startup founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The company is building small, low-cost ($400) drones that use AI to target and fly into those targets, thus blowing them up with attached bombs. The drones don’t rely on remote control or GPS navigation, but instead use cameras and AI for navigation and targeting. And because they’re low cost, they can be manufactured and deployed on a massive scale. 

Schmidt has been actively involved in supporting Ukraine’s war efforts, and travels to Ukraine frequently to meet with Ukrainian generals about using drones in combat. White Stork drones will soon enter the conflict, if they haven’t already. 

The future of jamming and counter-jamming

The future of warfare, as well as industrial espionage, terrorism and cyberattacks in general will involve drones in increasing numbers. History tells us that everything the Pentagon builds and buys for the good guys eventually ends up in the hands of the bad guys. That means we’ll likely need not only jamming, but also defensive technologies to counter weaponized drones that don’t rely on radio signals, but instead use AI for autonomous targeting and attacking. Drones are cheap. AI is free. The autonomous drones are coming. We need defenses that are legal to use.

The Olympics this summer will be our first test run. The terrorist group ISIS has circulated detailed manuals on adapting commercially available drones to carry explosives. The idea is to get the how-to information into the hands of “lone wolf” terrorists operating autonomously. The group has also explicitly called on its followers in Europe to launch drone attacks on Paris landmarks like the Eiffel Tower during this year’s summer Olympics. 

France has established an anti-drone coordination center at a military base near Paris in light of the threat. And it’s planning to use antiquated technologies like special guns called SkyWall Patrol that shoot nets designed to capture drones mid-flight, and even laser beam devices. That might be sufficient for the low-tech drones they face today, but the AI drones of tomorrow will require more advanced defenses. 

While American businesses, enterprises, and law enforcement remain mostly oblivious to the coming threat from drone-based attacks, Europe is proving to be a laboratory for what’s possible there now, and what’s coming to the United States in the future.

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