In a recent test campaign, a small defense contractor demonstrated its ability to detect, track and locate more than 40 small drones simultaneously using a package of small sensors.
The testing was managed by Colorado-based Areté under contract to the Army’s Program Executive Missiles and Space and combined the company’s Basilisk optical sensor, Echodyne’s EchoGuard radar systems, and Areté’s algorithms and integration software, officials from both companies told Defense Daily during an Aug. 28 online interview.
“I think one of the key points” here is “there are a lot of people talking about swarms, everyone’s recognizing the potential danger that swarms present, but I’m not aware of much testing of sensors or systems against larger swarms like this,” Eben Frankenberg, co-founder and CEO of Washington-based Echodyne, said during the interview. “We’ve done thousands and thousands of hours of testing of our systems including a lot of testing for other people like the DoD, Homeland and others and very few of those tests have ever had more than two or three drones in the air at one time, at most five or six.”
The testing was done over five days at Table Mountain near Longmont, Colo. The testing included more than 60 flights of various drone configurations and resulted in the collection of about 11 terabytes of data, Dr. Greg Fetzer, Areté’s director of Small Business Innovation Research and the test lead, said during the interview. Up to 44 drones were flown in any one flight, with 40 of the drones being identical and four that were different types, all of which were detected and tracked simultaneously, even when half of them went one way and the other half another way, he said.
“We’re tracking the individual drones, we’re not tracking them as a whole,” Fetzer said.
The drone flights were choreographed by a separate vendor and also included individually piloted drones, Fetzer said.
Areté has been developing the Basilisk optical sensor for about two years, including “some serious algorithms that go behind that and allow us to detect, track and classify drones,” Fetzer said. Basilisk is currently electro-optic (EO) only but Areté did some long-wave and mid-wave infrared evaluations during the testing using algorithms for the EO sensor to process the data “and things worked just beautifully,” he said. “EO provides a great daytime capability and I think we’ve proven during these tests we can map those results over to nighttime performance.”
In addition to detecting and tracking small drones during the testing, the Areté and Echodyne sensors were able to monitor other planes and helicopters in the area as well as a parachutist, Fetzer said. The sensor solution also detects vehicles on the ground.
The passive sensor system and related software and algorithms are still in development and Areté hasn’t completed its automated classification capabilities yet but a single Basilisk systems offers continuous dwell over a 180-degree field of view with no moving parts and includes a narrow field of view system for higher resolution that enables the human in the loop to classify a potential target, Fetzer said.
“We are working on both classic discriminators and artificial intelligence to do that classification chain,” he said.
Areté, which has about 300 employees, touts its ability to develop low size, weight, power and cost sensors able to detect weak signals in heavy clutter with low false alarms.
The value proposition to the customer of the type of system Areté demonstrated in the recent testing is a low-cost solution that has expeditionary applications, is both man-portable and vehicle-portable, and can be set up with using a single battery for a day, Scott McGill, director for Force Protection at Areté, said during the interview.
“Combining the work of both companies, we have a truly expeditionary counter UAS solution that not only will find UAVs and other assets in sky, but also things on ground,” McGill said. “It’s a lot of situational awareness in a small form factor and low power needs relative to other systems.”
Fetzer said that many of the counter-drone systems on the market are expensive, in the million to multi-million-dollar range, whereas the solution demonstrated by Areté with Echodyne is less than $100,000.
While Echodyne does sell its radar systems into the drone security space, the market is new for Areté.
Frankenberg said counter UAS solutions work best with the fusion of multiple sensors to increase confidence and reduce false alarms.
The recent testing did not involve any systems to defeat potential drone threats and the system Areté put together is just “part of the whole kill chain,” Fetzer said.
The Basilisk sensor system is designed to detect small drones such as the DJI Inspire 1 quadcopter out to about one kilometer, which has been validated, and the smaller drones flown in the swarm testing were detected out to between 500 and 800 meters, he said.
The combination of Basilisk with EchoGuard demonstrated detection of larger targets out to about 2.5 kilometers, McGill said. The fusion of the sensors provides confidence for detection and gives tracking and ranging information, he said.
The parachutist was detected out to around 4 kilometers, although that person wasn’t instrumented so it’s hard to be exact, Fetzer said. With just Basilisk, a Cessna 172 single-engine plane has been detected out to 8 kilometers and a Boeing [BA] 737 out to 48 kilometers, he said.
Next up for Basilisk is to continue work to improve the algorithms and reduce size, weight and power and develop a nighttime operational capability, Fetzer said.
Areté is also developing its partnership with Echodyne’s radar technology and the company’s algorithms to “extend capabilities of systems…and this set of technologies is also being promoted and being reviewed by a number of our customers outside the continental U.S. for integration into potential force space protection systems,” McGill said.