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Aerial swarming threats: Preparing agencies for the next attack

12 Feb 2019 2:08 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

Editor's note: This article is from the International Public Safety Association’s UAS eBook

By Wesley Bull, Chair of IPSA’s UAS Committee

During a U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, National Counterterrorism Center Acting Director Russ Travers testified, "We're in the early stages of seeing terrorist use of drones and UASs for swarm attacks, explosive delivery means and even assassination attempts.”

Myriad positive use cases for operational deployment of aerial UAS by law enforcement and public safety agencies abound (search and rescue, special operations, investigations, surveillance, crime scene mapping, fire incident size-up, HAZMAT, disaster response and beyond). However, most protection professionals simultaneously recognize the threats and vulnerabilities that aberrant hobbyist UAS operators and criminal and terrorist actors enabled with UAS platforms can bring to a variety of operating environments. Aerial swarm advantages and vulnerabilities are not only strategic, but also operational and tactical, and both offensive and defensive. The notion of aerial swarms, whether deployed with negligence or evil intent is downright terrifying and at present, difficult to mitigate.


This in mind, let us consider the emerging threat of aerial swarms and what protective services agencies should begin to contemplate – whether they have a UAS program or not.

Setting a baseline using academic definitions of UAS and swarming can provide a useful framework for the concept of risks associated with aerial swarming threats:

  • Swarming, defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as “a large number of animate or inanimate things massed together and usually in motion.” This technique ostensibly enables a construct for diversified situational awareness, elusiveness, speed, agility and the element of surprise to physically and cognitively overwhelm a target.
  • UAS (or drones), as defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary, are “an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control or onboard computers” which by today’s ubiquitous availability means an aerial platform that is relatively cheap, less risky than being proximate to hostile activities, and may provide more flexibility around attack modalities, diversion and situational awareness, among others.

According to a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report, “current and near-term (by 2025) capabilities will enable the employment of multiple sUASs in coordinated groups, swarms, and collaborative groups.” This is highly concerning given that swarms pose a significant challenge for counter-UAS efforts to detect, identify and track multiple aerial UAS’s. As cited by Seiffert in the NAS report, “as the number of individual sUASs increases in a single swarm, humans lose the ability to track individual sUASs and begin to perceive multiple sUASs as a single entity. While it is not entirely clear at what number of entities this perceptual transition occurs, it is believed that the tipping point is about 40 sUASs.”

State-sponsored actors

State-sponsored actors, such as China, are aggressively pursuing aerial swarm technologies to adapt, overwhelm and simultaneously deploy offensive splinter-attack capabilitiessuch as kamikaze drones with explosive warheads, decoys, electronic warfare UAVs, anti-radiation drones, armed UAVs, and communications relay UAVs. All are designed to overwhelm, exploit and adapt to counter-UAS solutions, along with causing the targeted entity to exhaust its defenses, leaving it vulnerable to the other offensive attack vectors that remain. Of note are the concomitant technology advancements with autonomous flight programming / AI whereby the swarm can even be pre-programmed to mount its attack strategy as a swarm, in autonomous mode with no pilot in command.

However, aerial UAS swarm technology does not exclusively belong to state actors. Although there have been no reports of multiple UAS or swarms used by ISIS as yet, Geektime reports there are indications that ISIS is becoming more advanced in their ability to maximize multiple drones as part of their terror attack strategies and Russia has reported aerial swarm attacks in theater in the Middle East.

Mitigation planning

So what mitigation solutions are available to counter the threat of aerial swarming by UAS? Regrettably, the most advanced counter-UAS technologies that I’ve witnessed remain classified and are only available for use by the military and perhaps soon, given recent legislative changes in the U.S., some federal law enforcement agencies. Not surprisingly, several countries outside the U.S., with fewer freedoms, have taken a much stronger posture about protecting their airspace from the UAS threat, making counter-UAS technologies available to law enforcement and their homeland security equivalent organizations.

A recent Popular Mechanics article recently highlighted that “law enforcement have surprisingly few effective anti-drone tools, and none—that are declassified—to target multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or swarms.” Shotgun shells that fire nets to snare the propellers, or frangible projectiles to obliterate the propellers, work only at close range and their utility can vary considering whether the environment is urban, densely populated or remote and unpopulated. Other commercially available options include pure detection, frequency jamming, geo-fencing technologies to barrier an environment, “pursuit drones,” which fire nets or projectiles and even falcons have been effectively used to combat the single UAS effectively, but not to counter swarms.

Generally, a counter-sUAS system is used to implement the following kill chain: detect, locate and track potential targets; identify, classify and evaluate targets as sUASs; engage and defeat (neutralize) sUASs; verify the response through damage assessment; and recovery of device(s).

Legislation, regulations

The legal analysts and researchers at Rupprecht Law developed a UAS law specific blogpost that details the legal and operational problems with many of the counter-UAS technologies in the market today. This site can provide the reader with more insight on the complicated landscape of conflicting laws, regulatory gaps and lack of legal authorities across the counter-UAS domain. It is increasingly apparent that current U.S. legal constructs, authorities and solutions for the public safety domains are ill-prepared to contend with the ever-increasing risks as UAS platforms go mainstream and this technology further advances.

As if the threat of a bad actor in some way weaponizing a UAS wasn’t enough of an operational challenge for emergency services to confront, we must now contemplate the potential for a swarm of UAS or micro-drones being deployed for primary and secondary attacks, to interrupt emergency response operations (aerial and ground), conducting pre and post operational surveillance combined with attack modalities, disruption of deployed public safety UAS platforms and beyond.

Notably, included within the FAA Reauthorization Act, was the Hartzler Provision for Drone Security - that provides Title 18 relief to allow these agencies to use counter drone technology to detect, monitor, and engage with unauthorized drones that pose a reasonable threat to the safety and security of certain facilities and assets, including those related to operations that counter terrorism, narcotics, and transnational criminal organizations. 

While it remains unclear specifically what “destroy” means within the language of the Act, it is believed that U.S. Department of Homeland Security, among others, are looking at both kinetic and non-kinetic options based upon a variety of operational and environmental considerations.

This short primer was designed to bring cursory awareness to the emerging threat of aerial swarms using sUAS, and begin to provide some perspective on the preliminary solutions being considered to counter such threats at the time of publication.

As a fellow protection professional working around the world, I must conclude that there is still much work to be done to better understand and deter this emerging threat. On behalf of the UAS Committee at the IPSA, know we will be vigilant in furthering our knowledge of this threat and provide our members with updates as appropriate. We welcome your comments and insights as we work together to advance IPSA’s mission across the protection disciplines.

About the Author

Wesley Bull is the CEO of Sentinel Resource Group, a consulting and solutions firm helping companies and governments better protect people, places and things from diverse and emerging threats. He is also the Chair of the UAS Committee for IPSA. Prior to SRG Bull’s career included sworn roles in law enforcement and public safety, special task force assignments within the US intelligence community, and as the CSO/CISO/FSO for two major global corporations.

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