The Transportation Security Administration in early July plans to initiate testing of technologies for the detection, tracking and identification of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at Miami International Airport (MIA), the first of two airport testbeds being established for the counter-drone evaluations.

Late this summer, TSA expects to begin work on a drone detection testbed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

TSA on May 18 officially announced the selection of LAX as the second airport testbed although Darby LaJoye, acting administrator of TSA, told a House panel earlier in May that LAX had been selected for the drone detect, track and identify (DTI) efforts.

TSA said it selected LAX as a UAS DTI testbed given its diverse aviation operations, large number of enplanements, frequency of UAS activity, and high passenger volume. In October 2019, the head of Los Angeles World Airports, which manages LAX, said that since April 2016 there had been 205 drone sightings at the airport and in only one instance had the operator been identified.

MIA, LAX Differences

The technologies TSA plans to evaluate at LAX include radar, thermal imaging and artificial intelligence. A TSA spokeswoman told HSR that the UAS DTI technologies that will be tested at MIA and LAX will be different from each other.

“However, there are similar elements of the technology that will be assessed at both airports to allow TSA to evaluate their performance in the varied geographic and environmental locations,” she said.

The UAS DTI testbed at LAX was funded by Congress in the fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill with a $3 million investment.

Interest in protecting U.S. airports from drone incursions, whether intentional or committed by careless and clueless operators, picked up following an incident at Gatwick Airport near London in which hundreds of flights were cancelled due to drone sightings near the runway.

“The UAS threat to airports has increased exponentially over the last several years,” Jim Bamberger, TSA UAS capability manager, said in a statement. “We are thrilled to partner with LAX on such a mission critical project that will pave the way for future technology assessments and help protect airports nationwide against UAS threats.”

TSA said the two airports selected for the testing have different overall characteristics to ensure that the evaluations will have different challenges.

“We are fortunate the two selected airports are set apart in terms of urban diversity including the types of neighboring buildings and local structures as well as surface geography,” the agency spokeswoman said. “There is also a difference in the airspace between the two airports in terms of volume and types of aircraft and enplanements and passenger throughput. These variabilities will be very useful in the evaluation of the technology.”

TSA said it is collaborating with airport, local law enforcement and interagency partners, including the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate. The agency also said that the data collected in the UAS DTI evaluations will be shared with interagency and industry stakeholders.

Separately, DHS S&T has an Air Domain Awareness DTI effort underway along the northern U.S. border. That effort includes UAS DTI. S&T will be evaluating various DTI technologies for use in open, mountainous, maritime and urban environments.

Later in 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration plans to test UAS detection and mitigation systems at five airports through 2023. The FAA said March that the upcoming testing will create future standards for countering UAS at airports.