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To counter the threats posed by small drones, the U.S. military may have to rapidly step up its R&D timeframes, according to a new report commissioned by the U.S. Army.

Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUASs) have become increasingly affordable and sophisticated. With millions of these drones now available worldwide, “It’s become very easy for an adversary to use them in nefarious ways,” says Albert Sciarretta, chair of the committee behind the new study and president of CNS Technologies in Springfield, Virginia.

The U.S. Army asked for a detailed report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that analyzes potential risks from these devices, especially to dismounted infantry (that is, foot soldiers) and lightly armored vehicles. For example, hobby drones could be fitted with lethal weapons such as explosive, chemical, biological, or radiological payloads—or modified to jam military radio signals, Sciarretta says.

The risks that modified hobby drones pose are not just hypothetical scenarios, the study notes. In 2016, a sUAS booby-trapped by ISIS killed two Kurdish soldiers and injured two French soldiers near Mosul, Iraq. That same year, Russia was spotted using drones to jam mobile phone signals near the city of Donetsk as part of its war against Ukraine.

Countering unmanned aircraft first requires detecting and identifying them, which, the researchers note, can prove very difficult. Among the reasons: These drones are small, typically fly low to the ground, and can move in highly unpredictable ways. Moreover, they can, at least in theory, conceal themselves among their surroundings by, for instance, hiding in a tree or blending in with a flock of birds.

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Category: Science