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People are key to defending installations, missions from small UAS threats

  • Published
  • By Marisa Alia-Novobilski
  • Air Force Materiel Command

Tiny in size, low cost and increasingly abundant, small unmanned aircraft systems pose a big threat to military operations and installations worldwide.

As the Lead Command for Counter-sUAS efforts for the Air Force, a team of seven experts from the Air Force Materiel Command Air, Space and Cyberspace Operations Directorate facilitates research and development efforts related to defensive sUAS technology. The team also directs fielding and acquisition efforts of the program office for the cutting-edge capabilities required to mitigate the growing threat.

“Small unmanned aircraft systems continue to evolve and threaten the security and missions of Air Force personnel at home and abroad,” said Katherine Clarke, lead engineer, C-sUAS. “They can be difficult to detect, and the increase in commercial availability of systems as well as kits to create a small UAS has increased their use all around. Use of small UAS systems by criminal organizations, terrorists, nation-states such as Russia and China, and other lone actors to obtain information is a proven threat with the potential to cause harm to our people and installations.”

Unmanned aircraft are categorized into five groupings based on speed, operating altitude and weight. The Department of Defense defines sUAS as those which fall into groups one through three. Often called drones, these are readily available for purchase in stores and are used recreationally by the public.

“Nowadays it is really easy for someone to purchase a tiny aircraft or drone for personal use, and hobbyists will often purchase small UAS kits that they can build and customize for whatever purpose they desire,” said Clarke. “Our concerns are not so much the UAS themselves but the potential threat they pose when operated on or near our installation airspace.”

In recent years there are numerous reports by airports and military airfields of sUAS interrupting flight operations when flown in congested airspace. The use of mounted cameras can lead to the gathering of real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance when they are flown over military installations or training areas.

Additionally, said Clarke, there are reports of sUAS being weaponized and used by adversaries to execute a variety of missions, including payload delivery.

“These are just a few of the domestic threats our teams are concerned with related to small unmanned aircraft systems, but there are many more. Our teams work to find technical solutions to mitigate sUAS threats to our installations and people, but we also rely on our Air Force personnel and communities to help identify suspicious sUAS activity--similar to the way we ask for help in reporting any potential threat,” said Clarke.

Raising awareness of a sUAS incident on an Air Force installation follows the same general process used when providing an oral or written account of any other suspicious activity around or on a base. Personnel can contact the Air Force installation’s Law Enforcement Desk, the Security Forces base defense operations center, or if those options are not available, they can contact the local civilian law enforcement agency to make a report.

Knowing what to look for when making a report is key, said Clarke.

“It is easy to misidentify satellites, manned aircraft and small meteors as a small UAS. However, a key identifying feature is the distinct, high-pitch buzzing noise made by small UAS rotors as they cut through the air. This noise is usually within a few hundred meters of its location. Individuals may also see either static or blinking lights, which all drones are required to have for navigation and anti-collision needs,” said Clarke.

Clarke and her team have created a guide to sUAS identification and reporting that provides detailed information to help personnel better understand the platforms and reporting requirements. The guide is available at sUAS Identification Guide.

As she and her team continue to develop and field the technology to counter sUAS threats, the support of personnel all around is key to success.

“We all have a role in protecting our installations from adversary threats. Being familiar with sUAS platforms and reporting methods is essential to our collaborative success,” said Clarke.

For more information on Counter-sUAS and the AFMC role, individuals can contact Katherine Clarke. The small unmanned aircraft systems guide is accessible at sUAS Identification Guide.