Toy, Tool, Trouble

Tony Caruso
Tony Caruso is the associate vice chancellor of research at UMKC and the lead investigator on $14.9 million in Department of Defense funding to develop counter-drone technologies. Photo by Brandon Parigo, Strategic Marketing and Communications

3 questions with a physics and engineering professor on the increasing threat of drones


UMKC announced March 2 it was awarded $14.9 million from the Department of Defense to research and develop counter technologies for unmanned aerial vehicles — more commonly known as drones.

The lead investigator on the four-year project is Anthony Caruso, UMKC associate vice chancellor of research, and physics and electrical engineering professor. He joined the UMKC faculty in 2007.


Read more about the counter-drone technology program.


What are the positive aspects of drones, and how are they used in UMKC research?

In recent years, they’ve been one of the most popular holiday toys. You can get a simple one, camera included, for less than $100.

Because of their high capability and low cost, drones can be a useful tool. For that reason, they are used in a number of UMKC research projects, from dropping precision parachutes to bridge deterioration inspection. Companies use drones to deliver packages. And drones are used to take aerial photographs for agriculture and real estate with inexpensive software for processing the data. It makes sense. The investment is a few hundred dollars vs. thousands of dollars required for a helicopter or inspector on foot to perform an equivalent job.

This isn’t a pragmatic example, but it’s a cool one. When you mass drones together – in a swarm – they can do almost magical things. At the opening ceremony of this year’s Winter Olympics, there was a spectacular display of lights and pattern from 1,218 drones joined in synchronization. This broke the Guinness Book of World Records for largest drone swarm.

How do drones cause threats, and what are the solutions?

It takes just one foot-long, eight-ounce drone to cause more damage and a significant threat compared with a bird strike, according to a recently released FAA report.

A drone can interfere with an aircraft. This can be unintentional, like a flock of birds colliding with an airplane. Or it can be intentional. A cheap, few-hundred-dollar drone could take out a billion dollar Department of Defense asset, such as a stealth bomber departing Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Missouri.

Another threat: a drone can carry weapons. And this threat is not always readily apparent. A drone can drop an explosive or chemical agent. One such act of terrorism occurred recently in the Ukraine at an ammunition depot, where more than $1 billion in damage was assessed from the drone-dropping of a thermite grenade.

Another danger: a drone can invade privacy. It can take surveillance photography, listen or collect other sensor data that compromises national security, or commercial or individual privacy.

And an inexpensive drone, in combination with another inexpensive piece of equipment, can seriously interfere with communications systems including phones and the internet.

It is a combination of all of these capabilities that make drone use an asymmetric threat and a disruptive technology. Asymmetric is the lopsidedness in cost and development time between the capable drones and the asset(s) they can compromise or take out. Disruptive means that the development cycle is so fast, that we are or were unprepared for how quickly this threat is presented related to the countermeasures needed to ensure control.

Our team of faculty and students are developing counter technologies to eliminate threatening drones safely, including new ways to assess, predict and defend. Assess means identifying and classifying that the object observed in the sky is indeed a threat, and, that the intended defense against or disruption of that threat aligns with the laws and codes which protect airspace and radio communications. This means that the disrupt technology must also be flexible enough to adjust its disruption potential for the level of hostility of the threat.

With the counter-drone technologies project and the portable nuclear-detection device development you led before, you’re creating a national-security enterprise at UMKC and in Missouri. Why does innovating defense technology interest you?

The economic disruption caused by 9/11, the fear soldiers have when walking down an uncleared street and the general irrationality of non-state actors causes loss of sleep and drive, akin to the Cold War-era scientists who we romanticize.


UMKC faculty are experts in their fields and gain national attention for their research.

>UMKC researcher contributed to Nobel Prize project

>Pain, Pills, Problems: Q & A with a pharmacy professor about the opioid crisis

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