Some terrorist groups overseas are using battlefield experiences to pursue new technologies and tactics, such as unmanned aerial systems and chemical agents that could be used outside the conflict zones.
-U.S. Department of Homeland Security1
In September 2013, at a political campaign rally in Dresden, Germany, a small unmanned aircraft system (UAS),2 or “drone,” flew within feet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere, hovering briefly before crashing into the stage near Merkel’s feet.3 This harmless stunt by a political activist demonstrated that drones, especially those using autonomous navigation systems, could be stealthy, accurate and potentially deadly. Had this drone been armed with a chemical or biological warfare (CBW) agent, it may have incapacitated or killed this high-level delegation, garnering international attention and triggering profound concern regarding the government’s inability to secure and defend vulnerable populations from any UAS capable of delivering CBW agents.
There have been other incidents involving commercial UAS and national security. In April 2015, a small UAS, possibly tainted with radioactive cesium, was discovered on the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister’s office. The UAS was “carrying a camera and a bottle of unidentified liquid that bore a sticker with the universal symbol of radioactivity.”4 In January 2017, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) started using commercial UAS to provide reconnaissance and targeting information against coalition forces5 and began showing interest in conducting UAS-based CBW attacks.6
Some violent extremist organizations (VEO) are arming commercial UAS with small munitions to attack adversaries.7 Likewise, UAS confrontations with military, law enforcement, pilots and citizens are increasing, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) now receives over 100 adverse UAS reports each month.8 These examples illustrate the intrusive, undetectable and potentially lethal nature of this emerging technology.9
This report briefly outlines the rapid development and proliferation of commercial UAS, their potential dual-use capability to deliver CBW agents and proposes recommendations on countering this likely persistent threat.
ADVANCEMENTS IN UAS: AGRICULTURAL SPRAYING DRONES AND CBW DELIVERY
UAS have been around for years, evolving primarily for military use: The Flying Bomb (1918); Target Practice (1935); Surveillance (1964–1969); and Hunter-Predator (2001–Present).10 Countries around the world are adopting UAS technology for domestic uses. Currently, there are 86 nations with UAS capabilities—both armed and unarmed.11 The development and proliferation of UAS technology is driven by the commercial sector as drones become cheaper, lighter, easier to use and more sophisticated—penetrating nearly every sector of the economy.12 Some fields benefiting from modern drone technology include: agriculture, construction, real estate, applied sciences, law enforcement, media, mining, private security, search and rescue and wildlife conservation.
The use of drones for agricultural crop spraying continues to increase, as do the available options for UAS platforms. In the 1990s, the Japanese developed one of the first UAS agricultural sprayers, the Yamaha R-50, and its successor, the Yamaha R-MAX, in response to demand for efficient, cost-effective aerial agricultural spraying.13 Manned fixed-wing crop dusters had been in use in Japan for many years, but the small size of most Japanese farms meant that this method was inefficient and costly. The R-MAX allowed more precise small-scale spraying, at a lower cost and risk than manned aircraft.
People around the world are becoming more aware of how their food is grown; they want it to be cultivated with as few pesticides as possible, while at the same time, farms seek to maximize yields through efficiency and manageability in plant protection and fertilization. These factors contribute to the development of UAS agriculture technology that can apply precise pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides on agricultural land.
In addition to Japanese agriculture spraying UAS technology, China is leading the field in commercial UAS. In particular, China’s Dà-Jiáng Innovations (DJI) is the market leader in easy-to-fly UAS.14 DJI quadcopters have become the standard in commercial UAS technology, and its Agras MG-1S agriculture UAS model is no exception. The Agras MG-1S is an octocopter designed for precision variable rate application of liquid pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides. It carries up to 10kg of fluid and can cover 10 acres in a single flight—doing so approximately 60 times faster than manual spraying. Industry standard ceramic nozzles come pre-installed and can be changed out if necessary to accommodate different spraying requirements.15 The Agras MG-1S was one of two models that the Spanish Military Emergency Unit (UME) trialed for disinfecting large outdoor areas and the exterior of vehicles in the global fight to contain the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic.16 Thus, significant advancements in UAS agriculture technology should give the joint counter weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) community pause.