The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Thursday announced the start of operations of a testbed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) designed to evaluate the performance of technologies that can detect, track and identify (DTI) small drones that could interfere with aircraft and airport operations.

The new testbed is TSA’s second for drone DTI, the first having opened in Aug. 2021 at Miami International Airport, and is being used to carry out the agency’s authorities to conduct these operations at U.S. airports. Legislation was recently introduced in the Senate to give counter-drone, also called mitigation, authorities to TSA.

TSA is using the testbeds to inform decisions for either the agency or airports to eventually roll out technologies, operating concepts and procedures to detect, track, identify and potentially mitigate small unmanned aircraft systems that encroach on restricted airspace in and around airports.

“The information we get here doesn’t just support LA, this supports every federalized airport nationwide,” Jim Bamberger, TSA’s lead on the DTI UAS effort, said at an event at LAX to kick-off the testbed. LAX offers a challenging environment that operates around-the-clock with heavy passenger and cargo volumes, he said.

“But if it works in LA, it’s gonna pretty much work everywhere,” Bamberger said.

TSA said that LAX was chosen for the second testbed due to the number of commercial flights and passenger volumes, the complexity of the local geography, the number of UAS sightings, and other risk factors.

Based on work in Miami, Bamberger said that there is no single technology by itself that can do the mission to detect, track and identify drones. Rather, a “system of systems approach” is necessary he said.

The sensors that TSA will used at LAX include radar, electro-optical and infrared, radio frequency and acoustic, Bamberger said. The outputs from these sensors are fed into an Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK), which can be a mobile unit such as handheld or laptop device, for a user to view any drone tracks and a wide range of related information, he said.

An alert zone can be created out to 10 miles with the sensor package that TSA is using to trigger an alert whenever a drone penetrates that geo-fence, Bamberger said. With the sensor feeds, an ATAK device can display a number of data points about the drone including latitude and longitude, serial number, take-off point, altitude, speed, landing point, location of the operator or controller, and even the camera feed on the UAS, he said.

Careless or nefarious uses of drones around airports, sensitive areas and critical infrastructures are a growing concern of law enforcers, security officials and operators due to safety and economic reasons. Drone incursions in December 2018 at Gatwick Airport near London led to hundreds of flights being canceled and a month later similar activity led to the temporary shutdown of flights at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.

Lucille Roybal Allard (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said at the testbed kick-off that based on information from DHS there have been 2,000 drone sightings near airports, including one in June at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport that caused the Federal Aviation Administration to halt flights for 45 minutes.

At LAX, which was used by 48 million passengers in 2021, there were 50 reports of drone sightings in 2021 and 38 so far in 2022 within a 10-mile radius of the airport, Justin Erbacci, CEO of Los Angeles World Airports, said.

In February, days before the NFL’s Super Bowl wad held at SoFi Stadium three miles from LAX, a drone was reported within 700 feet of an aircraft when both the airport and stadium were declared no-drone zones, TSA said.

“We all know drones pose a very clear and present danger to airport security and the airports need more tools to help them deal with this ever-difficult threat,” Erbacci said. “Whether a drone operator is naive, or acting maliciously, we know any incident where a drone comes in contact with an aircraft, whether accidental or purposeful, can be devastating to our airports, to our passengers, and to our communities. Securing our airspace is a priority that we share with our TSA partners. We are totally invested in the success of this test pilot.”

Erbacci said that the lessons LAX learns will be shared with other U.S. airports.

Keith Jeffries, TSA’s federal security director at LAX, said that in the instances where operators of drones have been located near LAX, “Most of them just don’t know” about the flight restrictions and are basically “just folks having fun with a particular new toy that they’ve received.” He added that, “Thank goodness we haven’t found anybody that has bad intentions up to this point, but we need to be prepared in the event that that happens.”