Likely drone attack on Pennsylvania substation

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US authorities have identified what they believe to be the first attempted drone attack to the nation’s electricity infrastructure.

With the ability to largely secure infrastructure from ground level attacks and a strong focus on cybersecurity, a potential new attack vector from the air is being opened up with the wide availability of drones.

According to media reports first put out by ABC News and subsequently others, an October 28 bulletin from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center attributes a drone that crashed on the roof of a building next to a Pennsylvania substation in July 2020 as likely specifically targeting the energy infrastructure.

The drone, a popular and relatively inexpensive DJI Mavic 2, had attached to it a thick copper wire via nylon cords. The camera and memory card had been removed and other efforts had been undertaken to conceal its origin or ownership.

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“This is the first known instance of a modified UAS [unmanned aerial system] likely being used in the United States to specifically target energy infrastructure,” the bulletin is quoted as stating.

“We assess that a UAS recovered near an electrical substation was likely intended to disrupt operations by creating a short circuit to cause damage to transformers or distribution lines, based on the design and recovery location.”

The substation is not identified and the assessment is stated to be based in part on other unspecified incidents involving drones dating back to 2017.

Many countries have restricted zones for flying drones such as around airports and other national infrastructure and some require registration and licensing. However, with the ease of launching drones, policing is challenging, as demonstrated at London’s Heathrow airport with frequent reports of drones being seen in proximity to incoming aircraft.

Given the number and extent of the energy infrastructure, not to mention others such as water, monitoring is even more challenging but it is nevertheless an issue that needs attention.