To help conduct its mission of testing counter-drone solutions in different environments, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate this month will conduct a week-long test of technologies to detect, track and identify small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in Richmond, Va., which will serve as a new testbed representing a dense urban setting.
Richmond provides the “noise level of a city” with its high radio frequency environment and the “structure of a city” with tall buildings and reflection and blockage of signals, all of which are nearly impossible to simulate for realistic testing, Shawn McDonald, a program manager in charge of S&T’s Air Domain Awareness program, said in a July 1 interview.
If a radar is set an elevated position, it will pick up fans on building tops, which have a spin such that they look like rotors on a drone, creating false alarms, McDonald said. If cranes are being used for construction projects in a city and they “move and swing and move stuff up and down,” that also adds to the noise.
“All that stuff is clutter in an urban environment,” he said.
The Virginia capital is also attractive because the Virginia Department of Aviation is doing work in drone traffic management, and state and city officials have been accommodating, noting that S&T’s work on counter-UAS (C-UAS) fits within the overall goal of making the airspace safe for legitimate uses of drones, McDonald told Defense Daily.
‘It only takes one or two to be out there doing bad things and then everybody wants to shut down the airspace for the legitimate use of UAS,” he said.
The upcoming testing in Richmond “is a big deal for us,” McDonald said, noting that it has involved “a lot forward leaning” by the state and city.
Another reason S&T, Virginia and Richmond want to work together is because the Biden administration has proposed expanding counter-drone authorities to state, local, tribal and territorial governments. The administration’s plan would also expand the tools and limited authorities used by the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State, and the CIA and NASA to detect, track, identify, and in some cases mitigate and defeat potential threats from small drones.
Small drones are popular with recreational users, whose activities at times can interfere with airport operations and commercial flights, and cause concern for owners and operators of other critical infrastructures. Small drones are also being used by bad actors for surveillance, to smuggle drugs and contraband into prisons, and in some cases to be weaponized.
“So, we believe sometime in the future that state and locals will probably have some limited ability to do detect, track, ID and possibly even mitigation,” McDonald said, later adding, “The engagement with Richmond is to also start that start that discussion with the state and locals.”
For the upcoming test, S&T will use a multimodal sensor unit installed on a tripod in a fixed-location and that will include radar, passive RF collection, electro-optic and infrared cameras, and an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast for tracking flights, all of which will be integrated into a tactical picture, McDonald said.
The tripod system has been tested out in contractor and government facilities and the testing in Richmond will be in “kind of the toughest of the environments,” McDonald said. From there, operators plan to take the system wherever they want to for an operational assessment and will give S&T feedback on its performance, he said.
The testing will be for research and development purposes, not to score vendors’ technologies, McDonald said, but to understand system performance. Using test drones in “some unique flight patterns” will help “characterize how this stuff works in the cities,” he said.
S&T will also be measuring any collateral effects on nearby networks and communications from the use of the C-UAS technology, McDonald said. In previous testing there haven’t been any negative collateral effects, he said.
The Air Domain Awareness program last year conducted evaluations of detect, track, and identification systems against small aircraft and UAS in a plains environment in North Dakota, mountainous terrain in Montana, and a maritime environment on the West Coast with the Coast Guard.
The land-based maritime testing hasn’t been publicized but McDonald said that in addition to detecting, tracking and identifying UAS, systems were used to mitigate drones “in a somewhat urban and coastal environment.”
McDonald described the test done in the maritime environment as challenging but “not as challenging” as in the urban setting.
McDonald also said that S&T is partnering with another agency that is bringing acoustic sensors to see how well they work in a downtown environment. The acoustic sensing will be separate from the tripod-mounted multimodal sensor, he said.
The next round of testing in Richmond hasn’t been scheduled yet.
S&T does its C-UAS testing to help DHS components understand the performance and capabilities of technology solutions. The Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and Secret Service have all used counter-drone systems for their operations. The Transportation Security Administration is evaluating the technology to help protect airports from drones operated by the careless or clueless, or by nefarious actors.