The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) within the next year hopes to have in place a testbed at a major international airport to begin evaluating different technologies that can be used to detect, track and identify small drones flying near airports and eventually would like to test the ability to mitigate drone threats, agency officials said on Wednesday.
The agency is working with Miami International Airport, local police and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to establish the counter-unmanned aircraft system (CUAS) testbed, Keith Goll, deputy associate administrator for TSA’s Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis, said at an aviation security conference. The goal would be to bring in various sensors such as acoustic, radio frequency and radar, on “a repeatable basis…and develop a catalog of UAS detection, tracking and identification technologies,” he said at the American Association of Airport Executives annual Aviation Security Summit in Arlington, Va.
Ultimately, TSA would like to add to the testing effort technologies than can mitigate and defeat small UAS threats, but the initial emphasis is on detect, track and identify, Goll said.
Through the testing, TSA would provide interested stakeholders a “clearinghouse” that describes how well a sensor or system works compared to what a manufacturer says it will do and include other things like performance requirements, Goll said.
Before the testbed can be established, related policies, operating plans, spectrum requirements for any technologies being used, and training have to be in place, he said.
TSA recently was given the lead authority within the federal government for CUAS operations at airports in response to UAS “that pose a persistent disruption of the national airspace,” the agency said last month in a statement.
Congress in 2018 also authorized the FAA to conduct testing at five U.S. airports of CUAS capabilities. Goll said that TSA, which already received funding from Congress for perimeter security evaluations, is moving out quickly on its test plans but is also working closely with the FAA so that they two organizations don’t overlap in their testing and also share information with each other.
The same law Congress approved last October for the FAA testing of CUAS also gave the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice authorities to counter threats to certain assets and facilities from small UAS. Then, in December 2018, just before Christmas, Gatwick airport in London suffered a 30-plus hour disruption to its operations stemming from persistent drone flights around the airport.
In response to the Gatwick incident, U.S. airports this year began doing their own testing of technologies to detect, track and identify small drones. For example, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has evaluated and deployed an array of sensors called Aeroscope, which is supplied by Chinese drone manufacturer DJI. Aeroscope detects, tracks and identifies DJI-made drones and locates the operator so that authorities can respond more effectively.
DJI’s drones make up 75 to 80 percent of the market for small drones in the U.S, which amounts to around 1.5 million, with more than a million of those purchased for recreational purposes.
The operator or operators of the drones at Gatwick were never caught and the event triggered a response in the U.S. that led to an interagency concept of operations (CONOPS) that gave TSA the lead authority for countering UAS at U.S. airports when a persistent threat is occurring.
However, TSA doesn’t have specific authorities granted by Congress for counter drone operations. Aaron Roth, deputy executive assistant administrator for Operations Support at TSA, told Defense Daily at the AAAE conference that the agency, DHS and other stakeholders need to engage Congress on the next legislative steps to help clarify roles and responsibilities around counter UAS operations.
Roth told attendees that the process for creating the CUAS CONOPS was significant because it brought federal, airport and local stakeholders together and begin to sort out the various challenges associated with detecting, tracking, identifying and responding to unauthorized drone operations around airports.
Airport officials at the conference told Defense Daily they frequently have to cope with unauthorized drone operations, most of which are a nuisance. But even careless or clueless use of drones could have tragic consequences, they pointed out.
Terry Blue, vice president of Operations at Memphis International Airport, who moderated the CUAS panel at the conference, began the discussion with several slides showing photos taken by drones near airports. One photo showed an Airbus A380 jumbo passenger plane heading toward the UAS that was taking pictures of the flight and another photo showed a plane that had just flown under a drone.
Roth described the CUAS CONOPS as a “phone book” that enables relevant stakeholders to communicate with one another as necessary. Response plans will vary from airport to airport, and depend in part on a particular airport’s organic capabilities, he said. What is a persistent concern from small drones at one airport may not be viewed the same way by another airport, he told Defense Daily.
TSA and its partners are also sorting out what capabilities they would have to bring to bear if an airport needs help, Roth said. In the short-term, the agency may need to be able to have solutions that it can move into place as needed before longer-term solutions are sorted out, he said.
The forthcoming testing of sensors by TSA and others will help inform what the agency acquires to carry out CUAS missions, Roth said. There is a lot to be learned about what TSA will need in terms of technologies and systems, he said.
Patty Cogswell, acting deputy administrator of TSA, said at the conference that TSA will soon “memorialize” the CUAS CONOPS in a roadmap, which will give insight into where the agency is going, what it is focused on and pursuing.
DHS is also tackling CUAS at an enterprise level. The testing that TSA and the FAA are planning will happen alongside evaluations next year led by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate of detection, tracking and identification sensors and systems in environments along the northern border.
The department’s Joint Requirements Council is working on a joint requirements document for all DHS CUAS mission needs.