The New York Post reports that a small drone has slammed into a building in the World Trade Center complex. No terrorist threat is suspected, but the incident should be a wake-up call to the potential threat posed by such drones.
The incident took place around 5 pm on Sunday when a tourist from Texas flew the multicopter into 7 World Trade Center. It became wedged between two window panels on the third story of the building.
The drone operator reported the mishap to the police and was taken into custody by the Port Authority Police Department. He was later interviewed by the New York Police and FBI. DroneDJ identify the operator as Adam Ismail from Dallas, and say that he was flying his DJI Air 2S to capture images of the World Trade Center when he lost control. The Air 2S is a popular quadcopter which folds up to fit in a cargo pocket and provides over thirty minutes of flight time cruising at 30 mph. DJI drones have an altitude limit set of 400 feet from takeoff, so he could have reached about the 40th floor.
The event triggered a massive police response with large numbers of officers seen in the area afterwards. The end result was that Ismail received a ticket for violating the city code which outlaws personal drone use in the area. Clearly this was just a case of careless drone use (and ignorance of local regulations) with no harm intended. But it does highlight just how easily consumer drones could carry out attacks in areas which are otherwise secure against terrorist acts. Even small DJI quadcopters can be, and have been, modified to carry explosives. In particular ISIS made extensive use of such drones to drop 40mm grenades on Iraqi and allied forces during operations in Mosul, with one report describing seeing drone bombs ‘fall like rain’. They proved highly effective against vehicles and groups of personnel in the open.
Even small payloads can do a lot of damage. Ukrainian authorities claimed that several ammunition dumps were destroyed in 2017 and 2018 – including one incident involving estimated billion dollars of damage – by small quadcopters dropping high-temperature thermite incendiaries.
And while it might be difficult to damage something like the WTC complex from the outside, some small drones are now equipped with window-smashing devices to get into buildings. These are intended for use by SWAT teams and other security forces and use whirling blades, projectiles, or other means to shatter toughened glass. Others have been designed by enthusiasts to aid rescue efforts. The same technology could be adopted by nefarious actors.
Remember also that there have been many incidents in recent years when small drones have carried out incursions over U.S. nuclear power plants and other industrial sites and even buzzed U.S. Navy destroyers during exercises. Some of this, like Ismail’s misadventure at the WTC complex, may be drone operators getting over-enthusiastic in their quest for spectacular or unusual videos. But it may be the prelude to something more destructive.
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece noted that the DJI drone reach 15,000 feet. While tit can fly at 15,000 feet above sea level, a controller prevents the drone from ascending more than 400 feet, which is the FAA limit).
By David Hambling, Aug 3, 2021, 09:05am EDT