Cover: Emerging Technology and Risk Analysis

Emerging Technology and Risk Analysis

Unmanned Aerial Systems Intelligent Swarm Technology

Published Feb 15, 2024

by Daniel M. Gerstein, Erin N. Leidy

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Research Questions

  1. What is the potential threat to the U.S. homeland from UASs or drone technologies, including individual systems and swarms of UASs?
  2. What are the potential limitations or challenges that a nefarious actor would have to overcome to employ these technologies in an attack?
  3. What are the threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences associated with UASs, especially as these technologies evolve?

Unmanned aerial systems (UASs) or drone technologies, both individual systems and swarms of UASs, have proliferated over the past 25 years for a wide variety of applications. As a result, this technology and the ability to employ these UAS capabilities represent both a current and a growing threat as the technology continues to mature.

In this report, researchers assess intelligent swarm technology, considering technology availability, as well as risks and scenarios (threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences) in the next three years, three to five years, and five to ten years. In addition, the researchers consider whether preparedness or mitigation and response activities would be undertaken that could reduce the risk as the technology evolves. The researchers conclude that, whether surrogate drone swarms or intelligent drone swarm technology is employed, these systems present a significant risk to the homeland, and vulnerabilities and consequences will likely be challenging to mitigate.

Key Findings

  • UASs, or drone technologies, for both individual systems and for surrogate swarms represent a current threat and, in the case of intelligent swarms, a growing threat given continued advances in range, payload, and power as UAS technology continues to mature.
  • The maturing of intelligent swarms will come at the convergence of multiple technologies, including artificial intelligence, big data, Internet of Things, and 5G, which will combine to support the development and employment of these capabilities.
  • The risks of the illicit use of intelligent swarms will continue to grow over time; however, attacks will likely remain localized, with the potential for impacts to be felt regionally in some cases, such as cyber or electromagnetic attacks against the electrical grid. This would mean the consequences are likely to remain moderate because they are not likely to have a national impact.
  • Vulnerabilities and consequences will likely be challenging to mitigate for homeland security defenders (e.g., law enforcement officers, first responders, planners, and workers in critical infrastructure sectors), because fielding detection systems and countermeasures across the range of potential targets could be extremely costly.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate and conducted in the Management, Technology, and Capabilities Program of the RAND Homeland Security Research Division.

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.