Drone Sabotage on Saudi Pipeline Facility Raises Concerns

By | May 14, 2022

The Saudi Press Agency announced on 5/14/2019 between 6-6:30 AM “two pump stations on the East-West pipeline were attacked by armed drones which caused a fire and minor damage to Pump Station No. 8. The fire has since been contained. The pipeline transports Saudi oil from the Eastern Province to Yanbu port. Saudi Aramco has taken all necessary measures and temporarily shut down the pipeline to evaluate its condition. The company is working on restoring the pump station prior to resuming operations.” Another announcement stated these pump stations were in the Dawadmi and Afif Governorates in the Riyadh Region. The Saudi Press Agency declared this is an “act of terrorism and sabotage” and “that it is important for us to face terrorist entities, including the Houthi militias in Yemen that are backed by Iran.”

A military source told Almasirah that the Yemeni Army carried out the attacks against the Saudis using seven drones. A previous Almasirah announcement indicated the attacks were “by booby-trapped drones[.]”

Saudi Aramco, the company that runs the pipeline, stated there were no injuries or fatalities reported and that “oil and gas supplies have not been impacted as a result of this incident.”

Is this type of attack new? No. Drones have been armed and used in threatening ways before.

One instance was when there was the attack on President Maduro of Venezuela where at least one of the drones was caught on camera when it exploded. ISIS has also used drones by dropping a bomb on a Syrian ammo dump and filmed the entire firework show.

Drones have also been used in an attack-method manner to actually prevent harm and destruction by countering in the air incendiary kites and balloons which Palestinians have flown towards Israeli areas to start fires. The Israelis use small first-person-view (FPV) racer drones to kamikaze into the fire kites. Here is footage of the Israeli drones ramming into the Palestinian fire kites.

With the growing use of unmanned aircraft as low cost solutions for sabotage and terrorism, the foremost questions are: (1) How are we going to stay safe and protect ourselves and our infrastructure from those with harmful intents using drones? (2) What can airports or critical infrastructure do if they have a problematic drone or drones flying around?

Ever since we witnessed the Gatwick airport incident where drone sightings lead to repeated closures of the airport, causing massive problems and now with this pumping station incident, many are looking into counter-drone technology.

Providentially, last week the Federal Aviation Administration thought it would be wise to provide additional information to airports in evaluating, demonstrating, or installing UAS detection systems at airports which includes a frequently asked questions document.

The FAA announced the FAA does not support the use of counter-drone systems “by any entities other than the federal departments with explicit statutory authority to use this technology.” The reason for this is many counter-drone systems will violate federal law, and only a handful of federal agencies have approval to exercise some counter-drone equipment.

Setting that aside, the frequently asked questions document raised two practical issues with a counter-drone response: the credibility of the sighting, and the criteria deserving a response.

How do you figure out the credibility of the drone sighting? Was the initial detection verified by visual identification? How do you know if this drone is illegal or flying legally under an FAA-given approval for a client? It can be very difficult to distinguish between a legal flight and a malicious flight just by spotting a drone flying in the sky.

So let’s say you detect there is a drone flying. What is the criteria for determining if an incident is worthy of receiving a counter-drone response? Is there a line drawn in the sand somewhere which will evoke an immediate response?

Any response has to be interwoven into the already well-established, understood, and practiced response plans without introducing some undesirable safety and efficiency impacts. This has to be communicated and coordinated among the many stakeholders. This has NOT been accomplished but the FAA is currently working on it with other federal agencies. Thankfully, the FAA is compiling a checklist of planning factors to help airports, and in the meantime has released a document on the technical considerations for unmanned aircraft detection that airports and critical infrastructure entities would do well to understand. If you dive into the technical considerations document, you’ll notice that each type of counter-drone technology has its own unique problems and benefits.

In conclusion, many great benefits have been actualized with drones which far outweigh the destructive uses we are witnessing. As we see the emergence of this new threat, we should remind ourselves that the use of new technology for harm is not a new concept and should not evoke a knee-jerk response towards the technology itself, but towards the bad wielding it. A custom-tailored solution to each location, entity, and counter-drone technology will be required, so we can all enjoy the many benefits of drones while still being protected.