The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology (S&T) in mid-March 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” at Grand Forks South in North Dakota involved the test aircraft, which range from Group 1 and 2 small fixed-wing and rotary-wing unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), a manned ultralight aircraft, and small manned rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft, Tim Bennett, S&T’s program manager for Air Domain Awareness, told HSR 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 exactly 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,” Bennett said during the interview. “Are they meters off or are they 10s of meters off in terms of location?”

Suppliers won’t know when or where Bennett’s team is launching from, he said. Bennett described the dry runs as a “very big success.”

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

First Up, North Dakota

S&T has signed agreements 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.

Grand Forks South is “in the middle of nowhere,” so Bennett said he advised participating vendors to have their cars “gassed up” and all the food they need on hand because they’ll be there “until the end of the day.”

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 the evaluations in North Dakota will be the “baseline” for whether or not a vendor is invited to move into the next series of testing.

If a supplier’s solution doesn’t work in “the flat plains of North Dakota where there really is no electronic or acoustical noise, they’re not going to work anywhere,” he said.

The next series of evaluations will take place over several weeks beginning on August 9 in an environment consisting of mountains and valleys in the Limestone Hills area of Montana. Suppliers invited to participate in Montana will have the option to be evaluated or not, Bennett said. Dry runs for that demonstration will be in early July, he said.

Nefarious drone operators use the valleys to avoid detection by radar and other means “so we need to find technologies that allow us to be able to get into all these valleys so we see patterns of life by these people as they’re flying through there so we know how to track them,” Bennett said.

Fall Plans

Sometime this fall, likely October or November, 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 done after each series is completed and a final report will be compiled after all the evaluations are done.

In addition to Bennett, he said his team include a subject matter expert in “radars and software and things like that” and someone from S&T’s National Urban Security Technology Laboratory in New York.

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.