Environmental engineering is the study of a dynamic relationship between humans and the environment – how humans impact the environment and how the environment affects humans. Like many other disciplines, environmental engineering has a lot to gain and share from exploring the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).

UAS provide a very interesting, and often sophisticated, platform to help scientists, engineers, and operators understand or at least navigate this relationship between man and the environment. The Department of Defense (DOD) has several mission sets that align with the use of UAS. Most of these missions fall within intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). The Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) community falls within this ISR framework. However, there is limited research related to where these three focus areas – environmental engineering, UAS and CBRN reconnaissance and surveillance (R&S) – converge.

Research Focus Areas

WWI marked the beginning of modern chemical weapons use. Although the Geneva Protocol prohibited the use of chemical weapons, nations continued to develop and stockpile weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Despite more recent international efforts by the United Nations’ (UN) Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), there are reports of chlorine gas, sarin, and mustard agents being used in the Middle East (Human Rights Council, 2014). Aggressive state, nonstate and terrorist organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will not hesitate to use these weapons. The international community, in addition to the U.S. military, needs to be prepared and properly equipped to combat these threats in any environment. However, current CBRN Multi-service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (MTTP) are dated and do not account for the use of UAS as a CBRN R&S asset.

The development of UAS has roots in ISR dating back to the 18th Century. The first Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAV) were balloons used for a variety of tasks including warfare tactics. With the industrial revolution and advanced warfare, bombs were outfitted with components for propulsion and guidance, which would later be used to create the first Unmanned Aircraft (UA). Aware of the enormous potential of UAS, governments and organizations around the world have designed, developed, and employed UAS in everything from combat to leisure activities.

The terminology, nomenclature, and classification of UAS are convoluted and often disputed. For the purpose of this research, a drone is defined as any unmanned aircraft, spacecraft, vehicle, vessel, or submarine designed for re-use. A UAS is a sub-classification of a drone which specifies an aircraft, often called an Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAV), as one of the primary actors of the system. A typical UAS includes: the UA, sensors, actuators, payload, flight computer, ground control station, and safety pilot. Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV) is a unique term, but still considered a UAV.

In terms of classifying UAS, there are several conventions with variations between the military, civil, and public arenas; however generally speaking, they all deal with size, flight endurance, and capabilities. This disjointed nature of terminology and classification is due to the emergence and rapid development of unmanned systems in a wide variety of disciplines across numerous organizations around the world. This is characteristic of how fast the technology is outpacing the language, law and, even in some cases, the application of these systems.

There are several industries fueling the development of UAS including, but not limited to, telecommunications, home security, personal navigation, and hobby. These activities are dominated by an evolution of achieving lower cost and higher reliability with each new generation. This is especially true for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS). In fact, these systems are beginning to saturate the market as the parts become smaller, more durable, and mobile. While there is a healthy supply of UAS, the demand is unrealized because there are still many unexplored applications.

This work was done by Brandon B. Barnes, Captain, USMC, for the Air Force Institute of Technology. For more information, download the Technical Support Package (free white paper) from the link below. AFIT-0007


This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Environmental Applications of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Multi-service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Reconnaissance and Surveillance

(reference AFIT-0007) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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