Game of Drones: the unmanned revolution in CBRNe security


Recent technological developments in the field of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have demonstrated the outstanding potential of remotely operated capabilities in mitigating risks to human security in CBRNe environments. On one side unmanned capabilities in contaminated sites can perform a wide range of information gathering tasks without compromising human security. On the other side of the spectrum, the spread of civilian UAVs on the market represents opportunities for potential illicit exploitation of these capabilities by criminal or terrorist groups. Public gatherings and critical infrastructure can be the target of CBRNe attacks conducted through the use of unmanned aircrafts. The wide availability and low cost of remote control devices make them easily obtainable by terrorist groups with illicit purposes. In this challenging security environment, the priority needs to be set on the development of mitigation strategies that include detection and interception systems, but also enhanced legislation and regulations to deter illegal UAVs activities.

In terms of CBRNe defense missions, unmanned systems can perform a wide variety of tasks that range from reconnaissance and surveillance to detection and decontamination. CBRNe sensors installed on a UAV platform can perform their functions independent of ground conditions, thus reducing risks of human loss and permanent health damages to first responders and soldiers. Instead of deploying personnel in non-secure and contaminated environments, UAVs can perform extensive information gathering tasks in areas that are too hazardous for normal workforce activities. Unmanned aerial vehicles can detect radiations, chemical and biological hazards, as well as explosives while saving human labor and increasing force protection. By deploying unmanned systems in non-secure environments, CBRNe first responders can perform more oriented and specialized tasks where the necessity of human labor is needed.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daichii accident occurred in 2011, the deployment of unmanned vehicles allowed wide-area measurements in high-contaminated areas without exposing human workers to nuclear radiation. In 2015 Japanese scientists developed a drone able to enter the Fukushima reactor buildings through a laser technology. Not only can this drone avoid obstacles, but it can also to operate in areas without GPS signal and replace its own batteries, without human intervention. UAVs have been sent into Fukushima’s reactors previously, but the high level of radiations have put the drones out if action in few hours. In addition to monitoring functions in highly-contaminated areas, drones have also been deployed in remote areas to prevent the outbreak of diseases and detect new infectious agents. In Malaysia UAVs have been used to monitor macaque movements and prevent malaria cases. Currently a group of researchers is working on a project that involves a drone programmed to collect and analyze mosquitoes with the aim of detecting potential diseases before they become an epidemic.

DroneDespite the CBRNe capabilities that unmanned vehicles can perform, the flip side is all but encouraging. The impact of drone technology rises concerns that UAVs could be illicitly exploited by terrorists posing emerging threats to public security. The expansion of civilian unmanned vehicles on the market and the attractiveness – in terms of price and manageability – of these systems have inspired a considerable amount of concern about the possible misuse of drones. Without the need of precision flying or advanced technologies, unmanned aerial systems can be transformed in delivery platforms for CBRNe materials. Most consumer drones will be employed for legitimate purposes, but the potential of their misapplication cannot be ignored.

Previous events confirm that UAVs has already been used by criminals and terrorists to threaten public security. For example, in 2013 al Qaeda’s plot to deploy remote controlled aerial vehicles packed with chemicals was thwarted by Iraqi military Intelligence;  during the battle of Kobane in 2014, ISIS released propaganda videos taken from drones and started using UAVs for battlefield reconnaissance; in 2015 a small drone with traces of radiation and marked with radioactive symbols was found on the roof of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office in Tokyo; in 2015 a drone carrying a pro-Albanian flag  flew into Belgrade’s football stadium during a Euro 2016 qualifying match, forcing the interruption of the game. These episodes rise fear that terrorist organizations could use remote control vehicles to release CBRNe materials during major events or in critical infrastructure causing mass casualties.

Because of the novelty of UAV technology, the threat of rogue drones is underestimated by decision makers and law enforcement personnel. Currently there is a lack of a common understanding towards the threat posed by UAVs. Law enforcement efforts demonstrate vulnerabilities to potential weaponized drone threats, and the development of a cohesive defense strategy seems far away.

SoldiersIn order to mitigate the risks posed by UAVs, in recent years new technologies have been exploited to develop anti-Unmanned Aerial Vehicles defense systems able to keep drones away from critical infrastructure. Innovative systems emerged and numerous companies are working on solutions that neutralize drones in the air before they can reach their target. Some of these technologies use shoulder mounted rifles that employ radio waves to disrupt drone’s communication capabilities, others consist in high power lasers that shoot hostile or suspicious UAVs from long distances. To prevent damages caused by falling drones, some systems also include technologies able to wrest control of the unmanned vehicle from its operator and land the drone safely. Novel solutions in anti-drones systems are not only linked to industrial and technological innovations. The Netherlands National Police has started training eagles to identify suspicious drones and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police has established a drone squad with the aim of intercepting rogue UAVs by patrolling relevant buildings. Air surveillance and innovative defense system are not the only ways of addressing the potential threat of UAVs. An important role in the process should be the implementation of relevant policies able to ensure the safe integration of drones in the national airspace system of a country. Lawmakers should introduce regulatory measures in drone industry as restrictions on carrying capacities, increased air traffic control regulations and the establishment of no fly zones.

Recent developments in Unmanned Aerial System technologies make the exploitation of drones in CBRNe operations extremely successful. Drones have the potential to contribute CBRNe disaster prevention and response. However, if illicitly exploited, they can constitute a threat themselves. Incidents involving the use of UAVs for illicit purposes should act as a red flag to decision-makers to develop mitigation strategies, not only based on technological developments and active defense, but also on deterrence and legislation efforts. Raising concerns for a possible revolution in CBRNe security should urge governments to fight terrorists in the existing game of drones.

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Anna Paternnosto is Vice President of the CBRNe Society and Director of Governmental Affairs at IB Consultancy. She completed her studies with a Master’s Degree in International and Diplomatic Studies from the University of Trieste, with a Cum Laude honors award in 2015. Her work in the international relations area started at the Austrian mission to NATO in Brussels and has further developed with the start of her consultancy career in November 2015, which led to a specialization and management in governmental relations. Having contributed to the organization of the NCT Event series worldwide since the start of her consultancy career, Anna Paternnosto has maintained links with CBRNe experts and government officials in all ranks, throughout the world.