21 November 2023

Perspective – Send in the Robots: Counter-Terrorism Response and Emerging Drone Technology

Zachary Kallenborn, Derrick Tin, and Gregory Ciottone

Terrorists, suicide bombers in particular, create chaos and bring death and destruction to the masses. Not only are innocent people hurt or killed, buildings and critical infrastructure will likely be damaged or destroyed. Police, firefighters, medics, and other first responders may struggle to respond when bridges and roads are compromised and saving lives means entering collapsing, contaminated buildings and potentially placing their own lives at risk. Drones are increasingly being used to help.[1] Drones are already helping map, photograph, and assess damaged infrastructure after terror attacks and other disasters.[2] If a building collapses and a first responder dies, that might be someone’s son, daughter, mom, dad, sister, brother, or just friend. But if a drone is destroyed, only the accountants cry.

The opportunities to use drones for terrorism preparedness and response are growing. Researchers are excitedly improving sensor processing, expanding use to new domains, enhancing autonomy, and connecting numerous drones into collaborative drone swarms. Counter-terrorism, emergency response, and homeland defense organizations writ large need to monitor these trends, identify opportunities, provide appropriate investments in technologies, and integrate great ideas into technical capabilities, training, doctrine, and response planning.

1. Sensor processing

Drones are increasingly equipped with multiple types of sensors to include electro-optical, infrared, and light detection and ranging (Lidar). Multispectral imaging provides disaster responders with greater situational awareness to characterize a disaster area, identify survivors after a terrorist attack, and conduct triage to better meet the needs of those survivors. Multispectral imaging could also help collect additional data about an incoming natural hazard and conduct safety inspections to support preparedness efforts, while advances in artificial intelligence can assist in processing and analyzing sensor data for improved prediction of national disaster occurrence, more precise damage assessment, or more effective searches for survivors.[3][4][5][6]

2. Multi-Domain Drones

Although the role of the MQ-9 Predator in the American prosecution of the War on Terror has drawn attention to aerial drones, they also have applications across multiple domains with relevance for disaster medicine. Global militaries have been developing unarmed ground drones for logistics and medical evacuation. Some small multi-purpose equipment transport can carry over 1,000 kg of supplies, which could be useful for carrying equipment, medical supplies, or basic food and water into disaster areas or carrying victims out, with limited risk to human operations. Likewise, bipedal robots like can maneuver across rubble, remove debris, use tools to break through panels and connect fire hoses to standpipes, all of which could be useful after a disaster. Drones even may support disaster response from space: tiny satellites like ‘SpaceBees’ (effectively small drones) can provide backup imaging, connectivity, and communication services when alternatives are damaged or destroyed.[7] These all provide new, versatile solutions for delivering medical resources, evacuating casualties, and rescuing victims without risk to human responders.

3. Greater autonomy

Drones are becoming increasingly autonomous. Some commercial off-the-shelf drones can autonomously navigate GPS waypoints and follow designated objects. Autonomy reduces the burden on human operators because the drone can be tasked to do something without requiring the manipulation of any controls.[8] After a disaster, drones could be tasked to fly fixed routes around an area with humans monitoring sensor feeds to look for survivors and monitor damage to the local infrastructure.[9] Other applications of autonomous drones for disaster response and recovery include unmanned ground vehicles used to decontaminate after the use of chemical, biological, or radiological weapons use and autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles to sample identified potentially toxic plumes for the presence of chemical, biological, or radiological weapons agents.[10][11] Drones in multi-domains may also have better access to destroyed areas: a small unmanned ground vehicle might slip underneath the rubble to check a collapsed building for survivors.[12]

4. Drone cooperation

Drones are increasingly being formed into drone swarms in which they communicate to accomplish shared objectives.[13] In disaster response and recovery, drone cooperation enables coordinated broad-area searches. For example, drone swarms could spread out over a large disaster area to search for signs of survivors. Cooperating drones could be especially useful for searching areas that would put human responders at risk, such as a collapsing building.[14] Drones could be equipped with different sensor types to reduce false positive rates. Theoretically, cooperating drones could help provide aid: a survivor in need of medical attention is identified, and the drone calls back to another with a payload of basic medical supplies. Cooperating drones could also be useful for disaster recovery, such as coordinating clean-up and disinfection of an area contaminated by a chemical, biological, or radiological weapons agent.[15]


The rapid advances in drone technology have opened a world of possibilities for counter-terrorism medicine, disaster response, healthcare delivery, and disaster recovery. By leveraging the power of sensor processing, multi-domain capabilities, greater autonomy, and drone cooperation, these unmanned systems have proven to be invaluable assets in safeguarding lives and enhancing the efficiency of health systems.

Policy makers and organizations will need to take a critical look at these opportunities. First, funding organizations should finance comprehensive, critical looks at emerging drone technologies to separate hype from reality. Sponsored research should identify and separate near-term opportunities to improve counter-terrorism and emergency response from long-term and more fantastic opportunities. Second, response organizations from FEMA and county emergency response organizations to insurance companies and local hospitals should adopt pilot programs incorporating new drone technologies. Experiences and lessons learned should be shared with others through publications, workshops, conferences, or informal knowledge transfers. Third, the most promising ideas need to be integrated fully in counter-terrorism and disaster response. That means long-term research and development relationships, dedicated drone response offices, dedicated training programs, modified response plans, and, hopefully, reduced harm from the worst attacks.

Drones have a clear role to play in counter-terrorism and emergency response. Disaster response organizations need to look ahead to not just where the technology is, but where it is going. Evolving drone technology creates real opportunity to save lives and reduce harms from terrorist attacks, tornados, hurricanes, and all manner of disasters. Let’s get to work.

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