Drone attack: US electrical grid threatened last year, report reveals


A US intelligence report has revealed that a drone was used in an attempt to disable an electrical substation in Pennsylvania last year, in the first known attack of its kind



Technology



5 November 2021

Electrical substation

An electrical substation similar to this one was attacked in the US

Brian Kinney/Alamy

A modified consumer drone was used in an attack on an electrical substation in the US last year, according to a report from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center.

The report, which is being circulated to law enforcement agencies in the US, highlights the incident at a substation in Pennsylvania last year as the first known use of a drone to target energy infrastructure in the US. The location isn’t specifically identified, but the drone crashed without causing damage.

The drone was modified with a trailing tether supporting a length of copper wire. If the wire had come into contact with high-voltage equipment it could have caused a short circuit, equipment failures and possibly fires.

The device is similar in concept to ”blackout bombs” used by the US Air Force, which have no explosive but scatter masses of conductive filaments over electrical equipment. These were used to shut down 70 per cent of Serbia’s electricity generation capacity in 1999 during the Kosovo war.

Electrical substations are normally protected by fences and other barriers, but Zak Kallenborn at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism in Maryland says these may not be sufficient against drones.

“Counter-terrorism defences largely assume a ground-based attacker. Hence the fences and bollards everywhere,” says Kallenborn. “The defences are obsolete if terrorists can take to the air. Drones are cheap, and easy to use. Critical infrastructure facilities need to worry about attacks from any direction.”

Counter-drone jammers are deployed at some locations but cannot defend every electrical substation, due to both cost and limitations on where they can be used. Kallenborn notes that while such drones only carry a tiny payload compared to a car bomb, they can cause a disproportionate amount of damage by targeting vulnerable spots.

“Critical infrastructure owners and operators need to identify critical, sensitive components where small charges can cause significant harm to the facility’s operation,” says Kallenborn.

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