The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology (S&T) this month kicked off an air domain awareness initiative that is focused on being able to detect, track and identify small drones and small manned aircraft attempting to fly across the border at low altitudes.

The “dry runs” the week of March 15 at Grand Forks South in North Dakota involved the test aircraft, which range from Group 1 and 2 small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) to manned ultralight aircraft, and small manned rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft, Tim Bennett, S&T’s program manager for Air Domain Awareness, told Defense Daily on March 25.

During the dry runs, the aircraft were tested and the S&T team also tested the GPS trackers on each aircraft to know where the aircraft are.

“When we get data from the suppliers, we match up what they say with what we know to determine the accuracy of their system,” Bennet said during the interview. “Are they meters off or are they 10s of meters off in terms of location?”

The Air Domain Awareness Demonstration project was supposed to begin last spring but travel restrictions imposed due to COVID forced Bennet to ultimately delay the project until now. The program was directed by Congress.

S&T has signed agreement with 15 vendors to participate in the evaluations although Bennett said some of the suppliers are teaming so there will be 12 “different set ups,” beginning with the first four the week of April 11 in North Dakota. Additional demonstrations will take place in the following weeks in the same area and end on April 30.

Currently, S&T isn’t releasing the names of the participating vendors but one company, Australia’s DroneShield, announced earlier this year that its technology will be evaluated.

S&T is planning four separate series of air domain awareness evaluations. The upcoming demonstrations in North Dakota are in a wide-open plain environment. Bennett said that if a vendor or set-up isn’t successful there, they won’t move on to the next series, which will be a mountainous environment in Montana in August.

Sometime this fall, the demonstrations will continue at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan on Lake St. Clair to evaluate the technologies in a maritime environment.

The last series will take place in nearby Detroit to test in an urban environment, which Bennett said will be the most challenging given “blockages” from buildings and potential interference from electronic and acoustic signals. The evaluations in Detroit will be in March or April 2022.

Lessons learned reports will be done after each series is completed and a final report will be compiled after all the evaluations are done.

Bennett’s team is evaluating detection and tracking of sUAS and small manned aircraft up to 500 feet. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations is evaluating radar systems on the border to detect aircraft flying between 500 feet and 8,000 feet high, which is also being done under Phase 1 of the Air Domain Awareness Demonstration.

Bennett said that if CBP and S&T find systems that they like they’ll put them alongside each other and evaluate if they have air domain coverage from the ground up to 8,000 feet above ground level. Putting the successful systems evaluated by S&T and CBP together will be the second phase of the project.

Phase 2 of the initiative will last at least six months and begin either in late 2022 or early 2023 so that technologies can be evaluated across the seasons, Bennett said. A technology that works well in the summer in Montana may not be successful in winter, which is why a longer-term evaluation is necessary, he said.

For Phase 2, suppliers won’t be present so DHS will operate the equipment. One of the goals will be to find out how easy the systems are to operate, Bennett said.

U.S. authorities are already surveilling the skies above 8,000 feet for aircraft but given the increasing use of smaller aircraft and drones flying at lower levels to avoid detection when crossing the U.S. northern and southern borders to conduct illicit activities, Congress asked DHS to test technologies to detect these low flying aircraft.

Later this year, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to begin evaluating technologies for detecting, tracking and identifying sUAS flying in and around airports. The FAA’s effort is also being done at the behest of Congress.

Bennett said that he is tied in with the FAA and is working “very closely with them,” noting that they are “his financial partner” on the larger air domain awareness effort. He said S&T is paying for his own activities and the FAA is funding their airport evaluations. There are also regular—both biweekly and monthly—meetings with all relevant federal stakeholders that have an interest in air domain awareness and counter-UAS participate to share data and update one another on ongoing activities, he said.