The drones used in the Saudi Arabia oil attack were not ‘off the shelf’

A Houthi kamikaze drone, believed to be similar to the ones used in an attack on a Saudi oil processing facility. AFP / Getty Images

Over the weekend, a fleet of 10 drones attacked a major Saudi-Arabian oil-processing facility. As a result of the attack, around half of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production has been suspended, cutting global oil supplies by 5% and causing prices to soar. The Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack.

It’s a significant event for several reasons: Because of its impact on global oil prices, because of the potential ramifications for foreign policy, and because it’s a reminder that a highly protected facility many thought was insulated from broader instability in the Middle East can still be targeted. From a technology perspective, it also highlights how drones — once solely tools of developed nations with huge defense budgets — are now more widely accessible.

Drones may summon images of four-propeller consumer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but these aren’t exactly your everyday off-the-shelf drones. According to Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree, the drones used on Saturday were “modified with jet engines.” A United Nations report, published earlier this year, said that the Houthi rebel group has used drones in their attacks for quite some time.

These are often kamikaze or suicide drones featuring explosive warheads. In one reported incident, an unmanned aerial vehicle used by Houthi forces featured “a warhead of 18 kg of explosives mixed with ball bearings.” There are also reports of Houthi unmanned aerial vehicles deploying grenade-sized munitions.

The U.N. report notes that the group used to use more standardized, commercial drones, but that these were limited by a range of only 150 kilometers. Newer drones used by Houthi have a top speed of up to 250 kilometers per hour and have “a maximum range of between 1,200 km and 1,500 km, depending on wind conditions.” It continued that: “The unmanned aerial vehicles continued to be used in significant numbers in Yemen, implying that the Houthi forces retained access to the critical components, such as engines, guidance systems, from abroad that are necessary to assemble and deploy them.”

It’s not entirely clear which model of drone was used in the Saturday attacks. However, it does suggest that there has been a tipping point in terms of the availability of these weapons. It doesn’t even take that much to weaponize a regular consumer drone — there’s even a flamethrower attachment for commercially-available drones that you can buy for $1,500.

Given how much damage it’s possible to do with only a commercial drone (such as bringing an airport to a standstill by threatening the safety of planes taking off), that’s something we should probably be worried about.