Unmanned Aircraft Systems For Emergency Management

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The Age of Unmanned Aircraft Systems: A Pivotal Time for Emergency Management


This literature review serves to determine if a need exists for comprehensive unmanned aircraft systems training for emergency management practitioners. The literature reviewed within examines the background, current state, and proposed future of unmanned aircraft systems both in the context of the risks they pose and the public safety benefits they present.


Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have gained both significant popularity and notoriety in recent years. UAS and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are frequently used interchangeably, and both are commonly referred to as “drones”. There is one key difference between a UAS and a UAV, as a UAS refers to a system that includes both a control unit and the vehicle being controlled, while UAV refers only to the vehicle independently. UAS is the appropriate nomenclature in almost all circumstances outside of referencing an autonomous vehicle.

 UAS initially began piquing worldwide interest after the widespread media attention given to Central Intelligence Agency use of a General Atomics Predator Drone in an attempt to neutralize Osama Bin Laden in 2002 (Funk, 2016). The Predator Drone was successful in delivering a precise and fatal payload. Unfortunately, the man killed was not Osama Bin Laden, but was an innocent bystander foraging through scrap metal in the mountains of southern Afghanistan (Funk, 2016).

Outside of military operations, consumer and commercial drones rose to prominence beginning in 2012 after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) loosened flying restrictions for commercial drone pilots (Meola, 2017). As drones become more common with commercial enterprises and private citizens, economists have estimated that the United States commercial UAS industry will be worth $12 billion by 2021, up from $8.5 billion in 2016 (Meola, 2017).  With consumer UAS being sold at prices as low as $50 at most big box stores and through all of the common online marketplaces, the number of UAS owned by private citizens presents a host of significant potential hazards for emergency management. Conversely, because UAS are so simple to use and so readily available, they may also serve as a powerful tool for public safety officials.


The literature covered in this review is split into two focus areas. The first section is comprised of articles and reports best described as UAS centric threat assessments, which contain compelling examples of criminal and terroristic UAS use and describe the public safety concerns that have become prevalent. The second section examines the flipside to UAS for public safety, and highlights some of the current and potential benefits of UAS for emergency managers as tools for all phases of emergency management.

Within all of the UAS threat assessments reviewed there are three prominent and recurring concepts. The first of these is that UAS are both very easy to acquire and very easy for the average person to operate. Secondly, even consumer grade UAS have the capacity to be used as terrorism delivery methods with or without modification. Finally, UAS are nearly impossible to track or stop once they have been launched to conduct an operation.

The ease of access and use of UAS was understood as a potential hazard at least a decade before the recent consumer drone market increase. In a 2005 report titled Threat of Terrorism Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Technical Aspects, author Eugene Miasnikov writes that “If the volume of sales increase dramatically in the future, state control over proliferation and use of UAVs will become significantly more complicated, especially in a case of a lack of adequate mechanisms” (p.11). In 2005 the military wartime use of UAS was still in its infancy and as such, consumer markets for UAS were not advanced and did not offer nearly the same access to the technology that is available today.

By 2015 Miasnikov’s foreshadowing had come to fruition. In Examining Unmanned Aerial System Threats & Defenses: A Conceptual Analysis there is a passage aptly subtitled “Commercial off the Shelf Threat” (pg. 5). The passage states that at time of print in 2015, “The nature of commercial UAS technology makes it exploitable for criminal or terroristic purposes directly out of the box, with little modification” (Wallace & Loffi, 2015)

Leading to the second recurring concept of consumer UAS threats with or without modification, Wallace & Loffi explain that even UAS that are purchased on the consumer market and left unmodified are capable of enabling criminal or terroristic acts such as interfering with aircraft, conducting surveillance of controlled areas, smuggling contraband by avoiding traditional security measures, and by being used as kinetic weapons when crashed intentionally into a target (p.22).

A largely contributing factor to the rapid development of UAS technology has been the correlating advancement of the smartphone. The UAS industry has adapted the use of several smartphone components and as a result has exponentially decreased the size of the UAS, while also allowing it to operate at greater distances even while being modified to carry a mass casualty inducing object, such as a bomb or chemical dispersal system. (U.S. Department of State, 2018, p.2).

Miasnikov expands on the dangers of UAS modified to carry a weapon of mass destruction. When referencing a 2003 terrorist attack that included two suicide bombers using a mix of plastic explosives and metal parts, Miasnikov states that if the bombing was instead done using a low altitude UAS, “…the geometry of dispersal of the metal parts would differ, and the number of victims would have been higher. Fragments of the UAV and remaining fuel might have caused more damage” (Miasnikov, 2005, p.8).

The final concept that is reported across all of the reviewed threat assessments is the idea that once a UAS is actively in flight to conduct criminal or terrorist activity it is nearly impossible to track or stop. Air defense systems currently in place in major countries, including Russia and the United States, are not in a position to neutralize domestic UAS threats. The difficulty is layered and begins with the difficult nature of detecting small consumer UAS with air defense equipment that is designed to identify incoming military aircraft or incoming ballistic missile threats. The issue with detection mostly stems from the reliance on current systems use of radar, which is likely to fail at detecting a small consumer UAS because the surface area of the vehicle is not large enough to be received by the radar detection (Wallace & Loffi, 2015, p.16).

The second concern with stopping an airborne UAS threat is that even if it is detected and tracked, engaging the UAS could have significant issues and drawbacks. Miasnikov explains that the air defense systems designed to engage aerial threats are comprised mostly of surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft machine guns. These air defense weapon systems do not boast high accuracy ratings, and at best are presented at being 28% effective (Miasnikov, 2005, p.21). If you compound the low success rate with the generally high civilian aviation traffic around urban areas, the possibility for an inadvertent strike to an airliner by the air defense systems becomes a frightening possibility. Miasnikov and Wallace & Loffi also point out that in the best case scenario of an air defense system making an accurate hit on a UAS, the debris falling to the ground would likely cause damage. If the UAS is neutralized above an area of critical infrastructure, the fallout may be even more detrimental to public safety than the original UAS mission itself.

 The U.S. Department of State’s threat assessment deviates from the other two threat assessments on this issue by stating that UAS countermeasures, which are designed around jamming both radio and global positioning systems (GPS) signals, would effectively stop the UAS. The assessment ultimately concedes that as UAS progress into autonomy and no longer require those signals to function, this defense measure will be futile as well (U.S. Department of State, 2018, p.4). Miasnikov surmises this concern by stating “…Once a terrorist [UAS] has been launched, it will be practically impossible to defend against. Thus, the main accent of dealing with this threat needs to be on measures to prevent the attack during its preparation stages” (pg.23).

To summarize the recurring concepts of the reviewed threat assessments, it is seemingly agreed upon that consumer UAS are easily acquired and operated, they are potential weapons with or without modification, and once launched they are nearly impossible to stop.

As mentioned in the introduction, UAS are important for emergency managers to be well versed in for two reasons. While the threat assessments make clear why emergency managers need to consider the risk posed by UAS, the following literature presents examples of how emergency managers can benefit from utilizing the technology in their mission. The concepts that emerged throughout these examples of UAS benefits include increased situational awareness, more efficient alert and response systems, and the potential uses as UAS and infrastructure technology both advance. These examples highlight the benefits of even the most basic and cost effective UAS during all phases of emergency management operations.

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Increased situational awareness includes UAS use for remote sensing, full color and night vision aerial photography, atmospheric condition monitoring, and real time video feeds. There are a number of situations where this type of dynamic sensing has been deployed by emergency management. The first UAS originally deployed domestically for an emergency management function was  tasked with situational awareness oriented objectives:  “[A] Predator-B UAS was used during 2007-2009 for wildfire surveillance in the western United States. It was the first civilian UAS to receive a Certificate of Airworthiness from the FAA to be able to operate in the U.S National Airspace System for disaster support and wildfire event imaging” (Homainedjad & Rizos, 2015, p.4).

A host of other remote sensing abilities of UAS are discussed throughout Use of Simplified DoDAF Viewpoints to Improve Dynamic Emergency Management Through Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance. This report highlights different UAS mounted equipment and explains the useful applications and potential drawbacks of that equipment. Some examples of equipment mentioned in the report include optical and thermal imaging equipment that can be applied to weather forecasting, hotspot mapping, flood mapping, and even monitoring sub surface land deformations (Quarles, 2012, p. 27).

Finally, a research project published in 2012 demonstrated the use of UAS for remote sensing in mountainous areas to monitor geological hazards. The authors used a UAS that was outfitted with a Canon camera and image processing software and programmed to follow a GPS guided  route to take aerial photographs of a landslide hazard area. The UAS flew to the designated sensing area, captured 113 photos, and returned successfully to its designated return site (Zheng, Yuan, Yang, Zhang & Li, 2012). 

The second concept of UAS benefits for emergency managers from UAS use is more efficient alert and response systems. These systems capitalize on technologically dynamic nature of UAS along with the removal of inherent risk when a UAS is used for an operation instead of a human being. Examples of UAS used for alert and response include applications during search and rescue, structure fires, and even more:  “The versatility of the sensors makes a UAS capable of being used for different mission scenarios” (Quarles, 2012, p. 27 ).

In an area ravaged regularly by both earthquakes and substantial flooding, the ensuing emergency response in Pakistan has demonstrated the usefulness of UAS for search and rescue applications as well as other emergent management functions. The UAS applications have been particularly helpful in Pakistan where human capital is routinely tasked with missions focused on delivering supplies, treating the wounded, and providing security from a very present terrorist threat (Nadeem & Chandna, 2018, p.7).

To more quickly assess the impact of a disaster, UAS are used by emergency response personnel to scan large swaths of land from the air. Depending on the outfitted technology, UAS can provide aerial photography to benefit damage assessment, utilize laser designators to spot and track victims needing search and rescue, or just monitor a developing situation with live video in order to provide immediate alert to the operators (Nadeem & Chandna, 2018, p.7; Quarles, 2012, p. 27 ).

One proof of concept from 2017 presents a network of UAS designed to continually and remotely monitor a structure in to provide immediate fire alerting and response. The network uses UAS and a UAS tracked ID card issued to the people living in the building, in order to provide emergency responders both real time notification of the fire and the real time locations of persons who have evacuated or more importantly, failed to do so (Seung-Hyun, Choi & Song, 2017). While this proof of concept does utilize UAS for emergency management, it is also predicated upon a wider network of technology that UAS can be integrated into, leading to the third recurring concept of literature discussed here.

The third emergency management benefit that appears in multiple places throughout the reviewed literature is the concept of UAS being integrated into a technological public safety network that is built into buildings or infrastructure. Using the interconnected communication between UAS and smart-thinking infrastructure an improved response to a multitude of emergencies, such as active assailant events, could be achieved. Although this concept of an interconnected UAS concept has not been completed, it is reasonable to assume that with current smart home technology becoming more mainstream there will soon be adaptations to existing infrastructure that is capable of interfacing with UAS.

As active assailant or active shooter disasters remain a significant threat to public safety, Set Your Drones to Stun: Using Cyber-Secure Quadcopter to Disrupt Active Shooters proposes a UAS based response. The author presents an argument in favor of testing the possibility of using “Commercial Off-The-Shelf” UAS equipped with non-lethal weapons functions in order to efficiently respond to and neutralize an active shooter (Wingo, 2018).

This idea is novel in itself, but Wingo continues to explain the benefits of creating a system to allow interface between UAS and infrastructure – “Consider the possibility of a [UAS] response being linked to a smart-building system that could literally open doors and windows for response [UAS]” (Wingo, 2018, p.3). The author provides a guideline for a network that includes UAS being stationed in a building such as a school, which is activated either by a staff members input or though programmed sensors which can detect the sound of a gunshot. Once activated, the UAS is able to maneuver to the sound of the assailant in the most efficient route possible using smart-thinking sensors above windows or doors. In this system, even if the UAS is unarmed it would provide meaningful situational awareness updates to first responders as to the location of number of active assailants (Wingo, 2018).

As a beginning step to this process of building systems, Vas & Palik report on the interface between UAS and air traffic control systems in and around airports. The authors explain that UAS have reason to be in the vicinity of the airport in many places, but there is risk associated with incoming and outgoing airliners. For this reason, the authors propose a system that allows the UAS to operate but to also be sent signals or programmed to detect incoming or departing airliners in order to avoid collision (Vas & Palik, 2012).

As evidenced above, UAS provide distinct benefits to emergency managers that will only increase as technology advances . With most current processes of information sharing for situational awareness and alert and notification, a number of systems and people are responsible for part of the information transmission. With current UAS, and even more so with future UAS integrated networks, many of these processes can be made more efficient while using fewer people and pieces of equipment.


The need for UAS focused training for emergency managers is based on both the threats UAS present, and conversely the ways in which UAS can be used as a valuable resource. According to the aforementioned UAS market growth statistics, emergency managers are very likely to either respond to UAS related disasters, or find themselves in a position where UAS resources could be a large benefit. Since emergency management practitioners need to practice comprehensive planning practices, to not familiarize with the threats and benefits of this technology could be a devastating mistake. 


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