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Criminals' drone swarm used to obstruct FBI hostage raid

Drones have plenty of legitimate uses, but criminals are finding more nefarious purposes for them.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Last winter, as an FBI hostage rescue team took up an elevated position to assess an unfolding crisis, agents heard the buzz of small drones approaching. Soon, the tiny unmanned aircraft had the team surrounded, swooping past in a series of “high-speed low passes at the agents in the observation post to flush them,” Joe Mazel, head of the agency’s operational technology law unit, told attendees of the AUVSI Xponential conference in Denver on Wednesday. The swarm caused the group to lose situational awareness of the target.

“We were then blind,” Mazel said, according to a Defense One account of the session at the conference focusing on unmanned technologies. “It definitely presented some challenges.” While drones are being used for legitimate purposes such as film production, search-and-rescue operations and structural or crop inspections, they are also being enlisted for increasingly elaborate crimes such as robberies, burglaries, smuggling and searching for gaps in facilities’ security forces. In the case of the FBI raid, Mazel said the drones were backpacked to the area in anticipation of the FBI’s activities.

In addition to buzzing the FBI agents, the drones were used to conduct surveillance of the team’s on-site operations, transmitting video to YouTube for other members of the drone group to view. “They had people fly their own drones up and put the footage to YouTube so that the guys who had cellular access could go to the YouTube site and pull down the video,” he said. Mazel declined to say when or where the incident occurred, saying it remained “law enforcement-sensitive.”

The FBI didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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