Initial evaluations of systems to detect, track and identify manned and unmanned aircraft as part of an air domain awareness initiative for homeland security applications continue to be delayed and the hope is to hold “dry runs” in early September, the program manager for the project said in a recent interview.

It comes down to “if we get permission to travel,” Tim Bennett, program manager for Air Domain Awareness at the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, told Defense Daily on July 30.

The dry runs were scheduled to take place at the North Dakota National Guard’s Camp Grafton Training Center in May, then in June or July but the schedule keeps “pushing right” due to challenges associated with the coronavirus, he said.

Once dry run evaluations are done, that will open the door for more extensive evaluations in real-world environments.

“Until testing in North Dakota happens, we can’t do the other” evaluations, Bennett said. The initial evaluations will demonstrate whether different systems “have any credibility to begin with before we take them to any other event,” he said.

DHS S&T is teamed with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Defense Department for the air domain awareness initiative, which is also important in evaluating drone security technologies that could be used in different environments such as urban, maritime, plains and mountains.

By mid to late August, Bennett said he will know if his effort will be able to get underway this year. It takes about a month to get set up and if his program gets the go ahead in late September, it will be “really iffy for North Dakota because in late October they can start to get heavy snows and that would shut us down.”

If the air domain awareness project can get going in September in North Dakota, then Bennett believes they’ll be able to conduct evaluations in a maritime environment out of Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan near the shores of Lake St. Clair northeast of Detroit.

The urban evaluation is planned for Detroit but Bennett said it’s getting too late in the year to test systems their due to the complexity of coordinating the event around a city. The maritime environment is easier because it’s done over an open area, similar to the scenario in North Dakota, he said.

DHS last fall issued a Request for Information for the air domain awareness effort and from that S&T selected 15 companies to bring their technologies to the test sites for evaluations, Bennett said earlier this year.

Despite the hang-up due to COVID-19, Bennett said that he and his federal agency partners have learned a lot about drone security technologies for homeland applications through other operations. Drone security technologies were deployed for the Super Bowl in Miami and last year in New York for a U.N. General Assembly meeting.

These events help the government sort out “what is working, the percent it is working, and which is a good thing, what doesn’t work,” he said. There have been a lot of drone security evaluations at military ranges but Bennett said these are “benign” environments and don’t let you know if something works in a homeland application in the real world.

A huge positive about the operational deployments at the Super Bowl and elsewhere has been the cooperation between federal partners.

There is a joint effort between the DHS Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Justice that includes other federal stakeholders in the drone security space to that is helping develop common processes and procedures, he said.

“So, when the Justice Department does something and we do the same type of thing but at a different location, we can match up data,” Bennett said. In the past, he said, pointing to demonstrations of drone security technology at evaluations like the military’s Black Dart, “you got data but it wasn’t data that I could take one set of results and say, here’s another set of results and we determine how well they did against each other… Now the biggest push is standard lexicons, standard processes and procedures across the whole federal government to make sure when we get something done that we are able to then share it and then everyone understand what it is and be able to not have a misinterpretation on words, on procedures, on processes, which to me is amazing.”

Bennett said the ongoing coordination across the federal government on drone security means that no one is duplicating efforts and “we’re not going in opposite directions.”