A year-long trial to monitor for drone activity to gather data, increase situational awareness and improve response actions is underway at a major international airport in Montreal and includes the airport authority and several companies.
“The safety of facilities and the traveling public is an ongoing priority of all the stakeholders at YUL and, in the coming months, we will be exploring various ways to facilitate the proactive management of threats that we may eventually be faced with,” Stephane Lapierre, vice president, Airport Operations and Air Services Development at ADM Aeroports de Montreal, said in a statement last week. ADM is the authority that oversees YUL Montreal-Trudeau International Airport.
Airports are faced with myriad drone-related concerns including not being able to verify visual sightings, operational disruptions, status of ongoing drone activity, whether the activity is a threat to operations, and limited response capabilities, Luke Fox, the founder and CEO of WhiteFox, said in a Jan. 10 n interview with Defense Daily.
WhiteFox is supplying its unmanned aircraft system (UAS) security system for the trial at YUL. Two other companies are also participating in the trial. BlueForce, which helps its clients make decisions around unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and counter UAS systems, and EXO Tactik, which is a UAS operator in the area of public safety and municipal services.
“Many international airports have considerable concerns about the amount of drone activity that is being visually spotted and that drone activity is causing disruptions at these airports,” Fox said. “Part of the problem is just not knowing. So, when you don’t know if a drone is there and somebody believes they see a drone, you then have to take evasive actions, which in some cases results in shutting down a runway or all the runways, which is very disruptive.”
The use of counter UAS systems at airports allows authorities to know if there is a drone in the vicinity and when it leaves, which is critical to resuming operations, Fox said. Moreover, the systems also enable investigative responses to drone activity that otherwise would be purely reactive and often result in some sort of costly disruption, he said.
WhiteFox, which is based in California and has about 70 employees, has sold its radio frequency-based drone security systems for military, government and critical infrastructure use, including airports, worldwide. The technology allows users to know when a UAS enters a certain airspace, track the activity, locate it and the pilot.
Based on operational experience with its deployments, Fox said his company’s technology allows users to make a “data informed decision” of whether a threat is present and whether airport operations need to be disrupted. The drone security systems provide “much more intelligence than the panic of someone reported a drone near ‘X’ runway or within the no-fly zone.”
Fox said the no-fly zone around Montreal’s airport extends about 17 miles due to a nearby heliport and the city itself. He said WhiteFox and its various airport customers have found that often people flying a drone near an airport are launching from their backyards.
“Our data shows that to be quite common,” he said.
The ongoing drone security trial will give the airport the “quantitative data” it needs to make purchasing and tactical decisions about counter UAS, Fox said. The trial does not include efforts to mitigate or defeat potential threats from drones.
That data, whether for Montreal or other airports, will allow authorities to better gauge what might constitute a threat and what doesn’t, Fox said. At every airport where WhiteFox has equipment, “every single day” there are multiple drones flying very close by yet there has never been a “major incident,” he said.
While a threat may exist, the “biggest threat is not knowing,” Fox said, because having situational awareness will let users make better decisions.
The trial at YUL is scheduled to run through this November. The airport serves more than 20 million fliers annually.
WhiteFox said the scale of the trial is “unprecedented,” given the size of the airport and the length of the project, which will provide data throughout the year and changing weather patterns.
Some large U.S. airports have been conducting limited evaluations of drone detection and tracking technology and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration is working to line up similar pilot projects as well.