The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate currently only sees brief delays to its schedule this year to begin an air domain awareness demonstration on the northern border of the U.S. to assess technologies that can detect, track and identify different size aircraft, including manned and unmanned, a department official said this week.
S&T, which is teaming with the Federal Aviation Administration and Defense Department, hopes to begin “dry runs” in June of the detection technologies at the North Dakota National Guard’s Camp Grafton Training Center, a month later than planned due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Tim Bennett, S&T’s program manager for Air Domain Awareness, said on Monday during a drone security webinar hosted by Defense Daily.
Following the release of a Request for Information last fall for the demonstrations, S&T has selected 15 companies to demonstrate their technologies to the test sites for evaluations in various conditions, he said.
The demonstrations will take place in four different environments: plains, mountains, maritime and urban.
Once the dry runs are complete, next will be actual evaluations of technologies beginning in either the July and August timeframe or possibly in August or September in the plains. These will be followed late this fall in the maritime and urban environments around Detroit. Then, in late spring 2021, once the snows melt in the mountains, the demonstrations will move to Montana, Bennett said.
The purpose of the demonstrations is essentially to know how the technologies work in real-world environments, Bennett said. The Defense Department evaluates drone security and mitigation technologies on “clean” ranges but for use in various scenarios in the national airspace these technologies need to be evaluated in “real environments,” he said.
The demonstrations will be done in the day and at night at beyond visual line of sight to detect aircraft at different altitudes, different angles of approach, and varying launch locations, according to one of Bennett’s slides.
This way the government will know “what works in an acoustical or electronic noisy environment, what’s going to work in a very urban canyon or a real canyon such as Glacier National Park.” The evaluations will allow S&T and its partners to create a “dictionary” that can be shared across the government so “then when we need to find technologies, we know that we’ve tested this in an environment…We know in a place with a lot of buildings and traffic, if I put this system in there it will work. If I put this other system in there, it won’t work. So, they can make smart decisions up front so when we do these covered assets, we don’t have to spend a lot of time researching each one. We can go get the correct technology and buy it and put it in place.”
The hope is for the demonstration project to become an ongoing program so that as technologies advance new data can be compared with old data and also to see how well technologies work at different times of the year, Bennett said.
Congress in 2018 gave DHS and the Department of Justice limited authorities to detect, track, identify and mitigate potential drone threats around certain facilities and covered assets.
The Air Domain Awareness Demonstration Project will evaluate systems and sensors against small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which weigh under 55 pounds, larger UAS, which the FAA is interested in as they become integrated into flight operations around airports, ultralight manned aircraft, and small fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
DHS and DoJ are interested in being able to detect small UAS, which are typically used to smuggle drugs, weapons and contraband over the border or into prisons. Ultralight planes are also being used to bring people, drugs and other contraband over the border, Bennett said.
Airports are particularly interested in these technologies, and in some cases have been evaluating detection, tracking and identification technologies on their own, due to unauthorized drones being operated near their facilities and disrupting flight traffic. These disruptions represent safety hazards and also can impact the local economy if flights are halted.
In addition to careless and clueless drone operators, airports are also concerned with the use of small UAS being used intentionally to interfere with and shut down flight operations, Justin Barkowski, vice president for Regulatory Affairs at the American Association of Airport Executives, said during the webinar.
Airports, the FAA and other partners need to become “more comfortable” with drone security technologies in the airport environment, Barkowski said, highlighting that there are no detection standards for this. It’s “very difficult” for airports to vet vendors and standards development is in the early phases, he said.
Barkowski also said airports are “losing money fast” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means fewer resources to put toward evaluating drone security systems.
The FAA is working with industry to help develop these standards, Leesa Papier, acting director of the agency’s Office of National Security Programs and Incident Response, said.
The FAA’s main approach to drone security is preventing operators of small UAS from interfering with flights through education and outreach, and airspace authorization. Deterrence is the next step in the agency’s UAS security risk mitigation strategy followed by detection and lastly law enforcement response and mitigation.
Requiring small drones to broadcast their location along with detection technologies are part of the detection portion of the risk mitigation strategy.