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Research Questions

  1. Which sUAS capabilities may be used for nefarious purposes within the next five to ten years?
  2. What are the performance characteristics of currently available systems, and what do market trends reveal about the potential evolution of these capabilities?
  3. What challenges do these systems pose for DHS efforts to detect, identify, classify, and counter them, and what are the implications for future DHS counter-sUAS operations?

It is difficult to detect, identify, classify, and—consequently—counter nefarious small unmanned aerial systems (sUASs) weighing less than 55 lbs, particularly in environments with high levels of sensory clutter, such as urban areas. As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) prepares for potential threats from sUASs, it will need to know the types of threat scenarios in which these systems could be used, which design elements are likely to be exploited by a nefarious actor, and which technologies and capabilities may be available in the near future to either threaten public safety or facilitate DHS efforts to counter such activities.

To support the department's efforts to identify where it should prioritize investments in counter-UAS capabilities, this report examines trends in sUAS development, the features that are likely to aid nefarious users, and how such actors could use an sUAS (or multiple systems) to conduct various types of operations—from surveilling U.S. government facilities to dispersing a chemical agent at a large public event.

Overall, the commercial sUAS market has been moving toward smaller, lighter, and more-difficult-to-detect systems. There have also been notable increases in speed, range, and endurance and decreases in acoustic signatures. Certain sUAS models have adequate payload capacity to carry a significant amount of explosive material or illicit goods. All these trends could benefit nefarious actors—and challenge DHS efforts to counter them.

Key Findings

Consequential nefarious sUAS uses are possible—and even likely—with today's technologies

  • The research identified four likely and consequential notional use cases involving the nefarious use of sUASs: unauthorized reconnaissance or surveillance, conveying illicit material, conducting a kamikaze explosive (i.e., kinetic) attack, and conducting a chemical, biological, or radiological attack.
  • Of the systems on the market today, 27 could complete all four of these notional missions, though they are predominately available to defense markets. However, approximately 500 currently available systems can perform at least one of the missions.

Trends in the commercial sUAS market continue to improve sUAS capabilities

  • Miniaturized radar, hyperspectral capabilities, and light detection and ranging (LIDAR) payloads have been developed to work onboard sUASs.
  • Global Navigation System satellite jamming and spoofing will continue to be attractive to nefarious sUAS users because a limited amount of power is required and because an sUAS has the ability to get into unobstructed positions, maximizing the impact of such attacks.
  • There are many how-to guides on the internet describing how to fit an sUAS with a cellular network transceiver for remote control, providing the ability to operate the sUAS from a distance and safeguarding human operators from law enforcement detection when conducting nefarious operations.
  • There is a robust open-source software and hardware ecosystem for supporting autonomous control, autopilot, and other sensors and control systems needed for remote operation.


  • Because of natural trade-offs in imaging sensors, DHS should prioritize a systems-of-systems approach for target detection, classification, and identification.
  • Against the sUAS threat, radars do not have to detect and track at extremely long ranges, something that is necessary for most military systems. Thus, DHS should explore the use of higher-frequency bands (e.g., Ku, Ka), with the understanding that higher-frequency bands are more vulnerable to poor weather conditions.
  • Given market trends favoring reduced acoustic signatures, acoustic detection is limited, and DHS is unlikely to see benefits by investing in acoustic detection of sUASs in the future. Similarly, LIDAR is unlikely to be useful and very likely to generate false alarms at real-world operational ranges. For these reasons, these capabilities should not be investment priorities for DHS.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and conducted within the Acquisition and Development Program of the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC) federally funded research and development center (FFRDC).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.